“I wanted something that backs up: this is who I am, this is what I know, this is what I can do,” said Jenna, a student.
It’s a number some students say defines you through one of the most formative years of life, holding enough power to decide their educational future.
“You can open up a world of access that you may not have thought possible,” said Greg Walker, Sr. VP for state and district partnerships at the College Board.
For nearly a century the ACT and SAT exams were hailed as gold standards for admissions in the U.S.— and when applying for college, students typically take one or the other. The ACT assesses four curriculum-based skills: English, math, reading, and science — with a high score of 36. The SAT measures literacy, writing, math and reasoning skills — topped at 1,600 points.
The scores have typically been used as key factors not only in college admissions, but scholarship opportunities, too. But COVID shutdowns made it harder to take the tests, accelerating the switch to test-optional admissions.
Out of the 850 schools that use the common application, only 5% requested scores for the 2021—2022 school year. That’s down from 55% the year before the pandemic. Today, more than 1,700 schools are test-optional, including all eight Ivy League universities, according to the non-profit Fair-Test. The University of California school system is among more than 80 institutions that are “test blind” meaning they won’t accept test scores at all.
The tests have a complicated history and claims of inequity are motivating schools to approach admissions differently. The first standardized tests began at the turn of the 20th century, after the founding of the College Board. The non-profit organization still administers the SAT today.
But at the outset of World War I, psychologist Robert Yerkes convinced the army to create a new aptitude (or IQ) test to measure intelligence and separate recruits by their scores and their race. The results indicated White men had higher IQs than Black men, leading psychologists to falsely believe race and intelligence were connected. In 1923 psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham who helped develop the army tests, published a book claiming testing would prove White Americans were superior to minorities. Brigham used his findings as the basis for the scholastic aptitude test, or SAT. He later took back his stance, but the college board didn’t change the questions for decades.
Then, in 1958 Dr. Everett Linidquist created the ACT as another option. He claimed instead of measuring students’ natural intelligence like the SAT, the ACT evaluated skills taught in high school.
Fast forward to 2022 when Priscilla Rodriguez, a vice president at the College Board, told the Washington Post the group has “rigorously reviewed” the tests to remove any hint of bias or similarities to an “IQ” score.
And Walker said this about their mission: “we are about fairness, we are about access, we are about opportunity.”
But critics of the tests argue they still create inequity, which is another reason colleges are rethinking the exams.
Fair-Test points out wealth influences the quality of education, because public schools are mostly funded by property taxes. The amount of money a school has is directly tied the socio-economic status of its students’ families. Wealthier families are also more likely able to afford test prep, with private tutoring costing anywhere from $95 to $250 an hour.
And fair test argues tying the test to financial scholarships cuts out millions of underrepresented students from gaining much needed financial aid.
One survey of some test-optional schools found diversity did increase modestly under the new policies, although researchers questioned whether the shift indicates a long-term change.
Tina Gridiron, the vice president for the ACT Center for Equity and Learning, says the racial gaps need to be addressed long before college.
“The test does not create the inequity. It reveals the inequities that are currently showing up in many areas of our K-12 system,” she said.
And Walker adds the test helps close the gaps by identifying students who have potential — outside of their grades.
“Do our grades in courses all mean the exact same thing, or do we have potential variances to all the stuff that we’ve gone through during this pandemic? How are you going to raise your kids and show what you can do?” Walker said.
To help close achievement gaps, the ACT created the Center for Equity in Learning and offers waived testing fees, free access to online prep and review and support for English learners. The SAT is going digital later this year and was made shorter in an effort to make the test more accessible.
Some educators like Joyce Nguyen-Hernandez say that might not be enough to help students score better.
“Just because they’ve experienced a lot of setbacks with COVID, maybe unemployment in their home and other issues,” Nguyen-Hernandez said.
And the changes aren’t permanent — with many schools saying they’ll re-evaluate after a year or two. MIT already is re-instating its testing requirement for fall admissions this year, after the dean of admissions said the scores help identify “academically prepared, socioeconomically disadvantaged students.”
Walker, who sits on the College Board, also believes the test is the best way to guide students toward any future they want.
“When you don’t have a standardized test or you don’t have a measure, then what you’re really doing is telling people ‘navigate, but we don’t really know where we’re going.’ When you have a north star, you give people something to strive towards, to focus on,” he said.
But for now, when it comes to deciding a student’s academic future — it’s undecided whether standardized tests are the answer.
By Emily Grossberg