Harvard University recently announced an extension of their test-optional policy, which allows applicants to forgo submitting scores on the dreaded SAT or ACT. The policy, first implemented last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will remain in effect until 2026. Though the University of Michigan has yet to decide whether they will follow suit, it is not unreasonable to suggest that administrators are considering the idea.
Constructing an argument against the consideration of standardized testing in U-M applications is simple. Our student body does not mirror the racial makeup of the state of Michigan. As a public university, one of our institution’s fundamental goals is to serve Michigan residents. Analysis from the Brookings Institution indicates that the large gap in SAT test scores between different racial groups can be explained by family income, racially-related test anxiety and lack of adequate preparation. They also cite research that finds high school GPA predicts college success more accurately than an SAT score. Because SAT scores influence where students apply, are accepted and how much financial aid they receive, this gap perpetuates the underrepresentation of some racial groups within elite colleges and universities.
Proponents of standardized testing could counter by arguing that even if this outcome is not ideal, the SAT is an objective assessment. Unlike personal essays which can have wildly different levels of quality assigned to them based on who is reviewing them, an SAT score is one number, easily comparable across candidates. Proponents of testing argue that removing the SAT from the admissions process could give less qualified students an unfair advantage over those who do well on the test. Yes, the average scores for Black and Latino test takers both fall below the College Board’s “college readiness” benchmark, but many within those groups score above average. When admissions officers are deciding between two competitive applicants, it could theoretically come down to a 4.0 GPA, 1200 SAT and a 2.9 GPA, 1560 SAT. Relying more heavily on SAT scores would benefit the latter candidate, even if it was the former who worked harder in high school, as reflected in their GPA, but lacked the proper resources to succeed on the SAT. Again, noting the evidence that SATs are less predictive of college success than GPA, the emphasis on SATs appears unjustly important.
Given the previously mentioned empirical link between race, income and test scores, underrepresented students applying to the University of Michigan would hopefully benefit from a shift away from tests. However, Meghan McArdle of the Washington Post argues that Harvard’s decision to continue being test-optional will benefit wealthier children instead, because they are more likely to have exemplary extracurriculars, grades and letters of recommendation. Without SAT scores, admissions officers can (or are forced to) justify their decisions using less quantitative criteria, making them less accountable and their process more opaque.
And yet, in a larger sense, why has the debate over test-optional policies begun to dominate the larger conversation around solving educational inequality? Research that identified possible reasons for the racial gap in test scores also point to income and parental education as explanatory factors. Even if attending an elite school would give underrepresented students a significant boost in upward mobility, there are not many spots at Harvard, Yale, Williams or other small institutions able to commit an inordinate amount of resources to each student.
Even if we accept that changing testing policies would increase the number of disadvantaged students attending those schools, that does not change the fact that, broadly, SAT scores show a lack of adequate primary and secondary education for a significant number of Americans. For students seeking other paths to higher education, they are behind, and different admissions policies will not change that.
Instead of focusing narrowly on testing, policymakers should consider other methods of lessening inequality in college enrollment, starting by reevaluating how we finance public K-12 education. In 1994, the state of Michigan passed a proposal that increased the sales tax by 2% and assumed control over the allocation of school funding, replacing the old system based on property taxes. Studies on the effects of this policy found that it reduced disparities in per-pupil spending between school districts and increased the percentage of students that enrolled in and graduated from college. The latter benefit was not concentrated among the poorest students, but this is perhaps partly explained by the decisions made at the district level to allocate funding towards more affluent students. Despite that, the reform demonstrated that investing in primary education can translate into better long-term education outcomes.
Another policy, introduced by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that providing targeted information about financial aid to “high-achieving, low income” students resulted in a significant increase in applications and enrollment among that demographic. Students already qualified to attend the University based on current standards were not applying or enrolling simply because they did not understand the amount of financial aid they would receive.
These kinds of policies, aimed at reducing economic disparities in college admissions, may or may not also reduce racial disparities. Given the correlation between race, education and income, one would hope that racial and economic justice can be achieved in tandem. Removing standardized testing might be the most efficient option to quickly reduce racial inequality in admissions. It is easy to implement and does not require additional spending by the government or parents. However, even setting aside concerns about admissions transparency, is the most efficient solution always the best one?
We spend 12 years in primary and secondary education but only four as undergraduates. Preparation for a successful college career includes the skills and experience one gains throughout their educational career. By focusing almost exclusively on how to alter the admissions requirements such that different groups can get in, we avoid discussing the possibilities that bolder, broader changes to public education can provide for the average American student.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.