What Do We Do With Standardized Tests?

By now, most colleges have gone test-optional. Amidst the frenzy of the pandemic, colleges lessened the importance of standardized tests because taking them had become infeasible. However, these decisions have gone from temporary shifts to lasting announcements. It seems to me that as of late, colleges are struggling to differentiate these tests between ones that discriminate and ones that shed light on discrimination. We know that the SAT and ACT have long faced controversy. The tests have been accused of being enemies of diversity and penalizing marginalized groups, who statistically scored lower. Perhaps one of the primary reasons for these lower scores is the generational lack of access to opportunities in educational systems. Yet, without our standardized tests, not only will America’s universities emphasize an even more skewed application system, but our country itself will be left lacking a principal indicator of where America’s education system needs the most academic assistance and how we should fix it.

To begin,  going test-optional only favors higher income students further. According to the “New York Times,” the top 20 percent earning families in the U.S. were seven times more likely to score at least 1300 than the bottom 20 percent. By nullifying the significance of the SAT and ACTs, colleges accentuate the importance of application components like extracurriculars. In a world of tutors, powerful parents, and intensive test preparation, it is easy to say that going test-optional levels the playing field for less fortunate applicants. However, strong extracurriculars are even harder to attain for lower-income students. Standardized tests are exponentially more accessible than pursuits like travel teams, international research programs, and rigorous debate training. The schism between a student with a formidable list of extracurriculars and one without will be far greater than differentiations in test scores.

The tests do not need to be a weapon against educational diversity. Intrinsically, if the SAT and ACT are fairer than prioritizing wealth-demanding extracurriculars, then the latter is a greater threat to diversity because marginalized groups do not have this wealth. The tests are a way for students, regardless of socioeconomic class, to show their adeptness at standardized skills. I remember my grandfather spoke of the importance of standardized testing in his career. After growing up underprivileged in Jackson, Mississippi, he was able to get a job at the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). In the process of acquiring this job, one cardinal aid to him was standardized testing. IBM places immense importance on standardized tests. My grandfather himself had acknowledged that as a Black man in a field that is still less than ten percent African American, he would likely be discriminated against in the application process. Had he not excelled on the standardized tests, this opportunity might have wavered. Standardized testing is simply an accessible means of gauging objective proficiency. In comparison with extracurriculars and opportunities often exclusively dependent on socioeconomic relations, the SAT and ACT are indispensable to assessing students as fairly as possible. Thus, one could argue that in situations like this, standardized testing actually buttresses diversity.  

Rather than getting rid of the tests completely, we should be more focused on analyzing them to see what inequities the tests illuminate. Unfair test prep may not actually be the paramount problem with low scores on the SAT and ACT. Socioeconomic gaps in standardized test scores may be indicative of something far bigger. 

Brookings says the average scores for Black and Hispanic students were significantly lower than those of White and Asian students. The “Harvard Gazette” cited that the children of the wealthiest one percent of Americans were thirteen times more likely than the children of low-income families to score above 1300 on the SAT.  However, before anything to do with the SAT, this score gap is a foundational American problem. Think of the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP), taken by elementary and middle school students across the nation. There is no pressure to prepare for the NAEP because it is futile to a student’s record and solely holds the purpose of analyzing the adequacy of certain school districts. Yet, even with a lack of test prep, the gaps and corresponding identities that we see between low and high scorers on the SAT are mirrored on the NAEP. Thus, the SAT is only helping shed light on which districts need the most funding to ameliorate their educational systems. Getting rid of the test does no good for these communities. It only allows them to sink them further. 

In any case, getting rid of the SAT and ACT does not do low-scoring communities any favors. 

In instances where the tests are completely infeasible to take, exceptions should be given, but overall, test-optional application processes only harm those whom they are trying to help. If we want to help these groups gain more opportunities, then eradicating the tests isn’t the answer. Many of the problems in America’s education system are not incredibly complex nor impossible to address. For one, underfunded teachers can result in unmotivated teaching, so schools should be given more money to allot towards this issue. Implicit bias in teachers can disable the need to provide all students fair opportunities, so schools should create policies to educate their teachers beyond just academic adeptness. Maybe the biggest reason that these problems are not pursued is because the test scores themselves make the investments seem futile. However, it is this very mindset that traps these poorer schools and underfunded students in low-scoring cycles. We cannot expect marginalized communities to thrive without believing that they can. To ignore the tests would be to ignore what could be the biggest gauge of American inequality, and consequently, ignore the pursuit of a solution.