Fueled by the pandemic and scandals around college admissions, more and more colleges in the United States are now moving away from standardized tests by adapting either a temporary or permanent test-optional policy. This leads those who are concerned with the issue of college admissions, including me, to reflect on the meaning of standardized tests and their future roles in the process.
When we think of standardized tests, we usually imagine an objective metric system that correctly measures one’s academic ability. However, this image is simply not true anymore. Nowadays, test prep companies like PrepScholar guarantee a score increase of 160 points and promise refunds if the goal is not achieved. Students who could afford tutors could also hire private tutors. There were even cheating scandals where the proctors were bribed and parents claimed their children had learning disabilities so that they could get extra time. The credibility of those numbers in proving a student’s true talent and ability to learn seems to become increasingly precarious.
Another argument against standardized tests is their racial and economic bias. Low-income students and students of underrepresented racial groups are less likely to get a high score in the tests, because of less easy access to tutors. In a society that stresses equity more than ever, it seems that requiring students to take standardized tests, or even considering them, seems unnecessary and unfair.
Yet, there is another side to this story. Even though standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are relatively unreliable and biased, it is probably still one of the best choices we have. Each of the other factors in the holistic review process of college admissions has its own problems. For example, GPAs might seem like a fairer way to assess a student’s ability as they account for one’s long-term performance. However, a study at the Thomas Fordham Institute has found that grade inflations happen more frequently in affluent schools, thus putting a disadvantage on students of lower family income backgrounds. Essays might seem like a good alternative, but they are also highly influenced by one’s economic background, as a student’s socioeconomic background could greatly affect their essay topic.
Even though standardized tests might be an imperfect tool to use in college admissions, it would be unwise from a pragmatic point of view to rashly abandon them. Instead, we should have a rational outlook on this issue and replace them when a better alternative is available.