We live in a data-obsessed culture. We want to know the numbers behind everything. It’s how we decide whether or not we are successful. And education is no different. As a student growing up in today’s world you’ve probably never known a school year without at least one huge test attached.
Your K-12 career culminates in one final high-stakes test—the SAT or ACT. There’s a lot of pressure from the moment you enter high school to focus and prepare for these tests. After all, your future is riding on this, right?
Read More: Which Is Harder, the SAT or ACT?
Well, not everyone thinks this is such a great idea for students. In fact, there is a growing movement of test-optional colleges and universities. FairTest, a leader in the test-optional movement, recently tallied over 1,000 accredited, four-year schools that have dropped their SAT or ACT requirements.
As this movement grows, and some pretty reputable schools join their ranks, it has given voice to many testing dissenters. Why do some believe the ACT and SAT should be abolished? In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the arguments against standardized tests as a college entrance requirement.
The purpose of the ACT and SAT tests is to attempt to evaluate how ready high school students are for the demands of college. It also gives colleges data to compare applicants. Those who oppose testing believe that neither the SAT nor the ACT fulfills this purpose. They even claim that it creates more problems than it solves. This is at the center of the anti-testing argument, but the reasons and evidence used are varied.
The number one reason colleges cited for dropping the SAT and ACT tests as an admission requirement, is the belief that they favor students from privileged backgrounds. The goal of many of these institutions is to increase diversity on their campuses.
A recent study released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that when a test-optional policy is adopted, it does seem to help diversity. Not only is there an increase in applications, but also an increase in the number of racial minorities, women, and low-income students admitted.
Some are concerned that going test-optional might harm academics. But this same study concluded that “Non-submitters (those who don’t submit ACT or SAT scores) go on to graduate at rates equivalent to Submitters.” In other words, how a student performs in college doesn’t seem to depend on the SAT or ACT.
The SAT was originally designed to be an aptitude test. In fact, SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test (check out my article on the origins of the SAT here). An aptitude test is supposed to measure your natural ability and predict how well you’ll do in college. The ACT on-the-other-hand was designed to be an achievement test—a test whose purpose is to show how much you have learned in the past.
Read More: SAT to ACT Conversion
A popular dissenting argument is that the SAT and ACT do not measure aptitude or achievement. Instead, they just measure how well you’ve studied. Practice tests are found on both the SAT and ACT websites. SAT/ACT prep classes are often an option in many high schools. Tutoring and test prep is widely available—both online and in person. And students are encouraged to take the SAT or ACT more than once to achieve their best possible scores. Because you have the opportunity to prepare specifically for what will be on the test, the more you study, the higher your score.
There also seems to be a direct link between household income and test scores. According to data released by the College Board, the average SAT scores increase along with family income.
Test preparation has become a multi-billion (that’s right—billion) dollar business. According to one New York Times article, “Many New York City families will spend over $20,000 on SAT prep and top tutors charge over $600 dollars an hour.”
Families with higher incomes can afford to provide better resources and more resources for their children. These kids are much more likely to have higher SAT scores merely because they have the ability to buy preparation.
Another reason some argue that the ACT and SAT should be abolished is because there are just too many inconsistencies in the tests. Both tests are given on an enormous scale, not only across the U.S., but also internationally. Both testing companies have very strict testing procedures and test security measures. But it is impossible to know that all testing procedures and environments are completely equal.
Issues have been reported by proctors and test centers across the country of timing errors, altered answer sheets, and cheating. According to the New York Times, the most recent college admissions scandal even “provided an instruction manual for gaming the SAT: bribe the proctor, hire a stand-in, see the right psychologist to get a signoff for more time.” Unfortunately, wherever stakes are high, there will be dishonest people who will try to cheat the system.
Test anxiety is a very real problem for some students. One University of South Florida study explains that “Those suffering from high test anxiety seem to perform poorly on examinations because test anxiety can contribute to information processing challenges both while studying for tests and during evaluative situations.” Anxiety actually affects the way that some students are able to understand, evaluate, and recall information. Some of these kids are great students, but just freeze up on tests. Test anxiety can be overcome, but it is definitely a greater challenge.
There are other students who just have a bad testing day. Circumstances in their personal lives or even events on the way to the testing center throw off their focus. These students may not be able to take the SAT or the ACT more than once. It feels unfair for these kids whose entire future might be thrown off-track because of one bad day.
Test-optional policies give alternatives to students who don’t believe their test scores reflect their true academic potential.
One of the claims made by those schools who have gone test-optional, is that they have found better ways to predict how well students will succeed in college. Many cite the National Association for College Admission Counseling study which concludes that high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than either the SAT or the ACT.
Others prefer results from AP or IB tests because they are a truer reflection of what a student has learned. Some colleges make the General SAT optional but ask for SAT Subject tests because they highlight a student’s academic strengths.
Many colleges are adopting what is called a “holistic review.” They believe it shows a truer picture of applicants. The idea is that admissions teams will look at the applicant as a whole—not just academics and test scores. The University of Oregon is one school that uses this process. According to their website, “Holistic review takes into account factors such as a student’s strength of high school coursework, academic and extracurricular interests, unique talents, and personality.” Schools like the University of Oregon believe that going beyond a test score will draw students who will be meaningful additions to their campuses.
Of course, there are two sides to every argument. ACT and SAT advocates argue that most scores are fair and accurate. And while there may be some inconsistencies, they are usually discovered and dealt with fairly.
Both the SAT and the ACT have taken measures to make their tests accessible to students from all backgrounds. They offer free study resources, fee waivers, and even opportunities to test from your own high school on a regular school day. They have done all this to try to bridge the gap between those who can afford extra help and those who can’t. And they provide data to show it seems to be working.
Read More: SAT vs ACT
For those schools that claim test-optional policies give them more diversity, other schools argue they are also enrolling more minorities. Jack Buckley, from the American Institutes for Research, explains in this NPR article that though diversity has improved in schools that made tests optional, it also is increasing “at the same rate among those that didn’t.”
Schools that continue to require SAT and ACT agree that GPA, other forms of testing, and holistic review are valuable admissions resources. But they believe test scores add to the entire picture. These tests may have flaws, but there is no perfect system.
This is a debate without an easy answer. There has been compelling research on both sides. But for now, neither the ACT or the SAT is going away. Even if you are applying to a test-optional school, you may still want to consider taking one of these tests. Each test-optional policy looks slightly different. Some test-optional schools “recommend” taking a test, which means they still see it as important to your application.
Others will “consider” it as part of your application. So if you want to give them a complete picture of your academic abilities, you may want to submit test scores. Only a few schools have gone so far as to say they won’t even look at your SAT or ACT scores.
All colleges and universities have some sort of admission requirement that they believe will help admissions counselors make an educated prediction of how you’ll perform in college classes. Whatever your view may be on testing, it ultimately comes down to what the college wants. So always take a good look at the college admission requirements on your target school’s website. And if you have to take an SAT or ACT, don’t panic. Use the resources available to you. If you want it—go get it.