Testing perpetuates systemic inequalities, and it isn't even an accurate indicator of achievement.
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A new study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling provides evidence that test-optional policies ― a variety of policies that allow students not to submit scores on standardized tests like the SAT or GRE during the admissions process ― can help colleges improve their diversity without sacrificing academic quality.

The study found that schools that do not require the SAT/ACT saw an increased enrollment of underrepresented students of color relative to comparable institutions that require a test score and that admitted students who did not submit scores were just as likely to graduate as admitted students who did. The report also found that high school grade point average (GPA) was a better predictor of success in college GPA than test scores for non-submitters.

The conversation also extends to the graduate level, where institutions are grappling with whether to use standardized tests, which ones and how. In particular, the Inclusive Graduate Education Network and the Alliance for Multicampus, Inclusive Graduate Admissions, are promoting and studying the effects of inclusive holistic review practices. These projects are also exploring what factors of an application are most important for admission to graduate school versus success in graduate school. (Full disclosure: I am affiliated with IGEN and AMIGA, but the opinions here are mine and do not necessarily represent these projects or anyone affiliated with them.)

The NACAC report contrasts with Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions, a recent book published by scholars tied to the testing industry, which argues test-optional policies are either ineffective at increasing diversity or do no better than similar institutions that require these tests.

Unfortunately, this debate sidesteps a serious issue: the urgent need to seek solutions beyond the ways that selective college admissions are conducted today. We need to pay attention to the deeper purposes that selection criteria serve — and for whom. The use of standardized tests in admissions disproportionately exclude people of color and other marginalized groups.

The truth is that overwhelming research has shown that performance on these tests is better at predicting demographic characteristics like class, gender and race than educational outcomes. This disproportionately excludes racial minorities, women and low-income persons from selective colleges.

For many practitioners in higher education, these tests are simply the most efficient and common metric for evaluating students. But efficiency can no longer be an excuse for maintaining a flawed system. The only result we can expect from that course of action is efficiently maintaining the status quo of inequality. The makers and advocates of standardized tests promote the notion that equality requires we use a singular metric to evaluate everyone in the same way. But one common tool cannot equitably measure the potential of people who have been afforded different chances in life. Our limited resources must be redirected to finding better ways to reach equitable outcomes, which will require offsetting prior inequality of opportunity and resources.

“As of January 2018, over 1,000 colleges and universities have stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores for undergraduate applicants.”

From academics to policymakers, people mistakenly believe that standardized tests are better at predicting college outcomes, like grades and graduation, than they really are. This uncritical belief in the current system of admissions allows those who have benefited to feel that they earned their position completely on their own. In reality, our success is a combination of our effort, our opportunities and the resources to make the most of both. This misplaced faith also makes us complicit in the exclusion of those who have not had our same privileges.

Even if standardized tests perfectly predicted achievement, they would be doing so on the basis of accumulated resources that have helped children from privileged backgrounds to reach the levels of success that they have by the time they take the test. These testing disparities do not represent students’ potential to learn and achieve.

As Jerome Karabel documented in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, standardized tests played a devious role in the history of admissions at selective institutions. Selection criteria like the SAT/ACT and GRE come out of historical actions that have defined merit purposefully to exclude students based on their social identities, including religious affiliation.

Add to that history generations of underfunded schools and a bevy of other racial and class-based discriminations that continue to hamper the achievements of racially minoritized and low-income students. To accept any “predictive” measure that perpetuates these inequalities, even indirectly, is a disservice to communities of color and poor people today and robs future generations of their potential.

For the United States to live up to its highest potential, we have to stop turning away students from the possibilities of higher education just because their backgrounds have not afforded them the same opportunities or the resources needed to take advantage of earlier opportunities. To that end, researchers like Estela Bensimon highlight the responsibility of our educators and educational institutions to better serve marginalized students in order to support the success of all students.

So how do we move forward? Some research indicates that holistic review may be better at judging a student’s potential given the context of their prior experiences.

Many highly selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia already claim to practice a version of holistic review due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s backing of this approach in affirmative action cases. However, these options are largely used and researched in tandem with standardized tests that produce racially and class-based disparate outcomes.

We have inherited a society built on grave injustices, and we perpetuate them through both intentional acts and failures to redress what has been done. Higher education, from college to graduate school, can provide the opportunities and resources for people to make the most of their potential but only if we make access to it more equitable. The only way forward is to enact policies and practices, especially in education, that are corrective and redistributive.

The time has come to end the perpetuation of systemic inequity through institutional practices that appear facially neutral, but which have a disparate impact by race and class. Ending the use of standardized tests at all levels of admissions is one of the ways we can do so.

Theresa E. Hernandez is a scholar of higher education policy working toward her doctorate at the University of Southern California. Her research examines issues of race, gender, class and intersectional equity in academia.

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