How colleges use SAT-optional applications to covertly impose affirmative action
The Wall Street Journal reports that 1.7 million students in the high-school class of 2022 took the SATs, up 200,000 from the previous year. The number taking the ACT went up, too. Yet almost three-quarters of colleges offering four-year-degrees have gone test-optional or test-blind. So fewer schools now require tests but more kids are taking them. What’s going on?
The short answer: Test-optional schools have created a two-tier system to get around complaints about their affirmative-action preferences. They don’t want scores that might screen out applicants they’d otherwise like to accept. But they do want test results from wealthier white kids because the tests provide valuable info.
They’re perpetuating an unfair system.
The percentage of kids taking these tests is still down from pre-pandemic levels, but the trend was clearly upward in the years beforehand — from 48% for the class of 2017 to 58% for 2018 and 61% for 2019. And while the test-optional trend has accelerated, hundreds of schools had adopted the policy by 2019, including half of the top 100 liberal arts colleges.
The movement to end high stakes testing, and particularly college admissions exams, is not a new one. The group FairTest, for instance, was launched almost four decades ago “to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial.” The original critiques focused mostly on the stress they cause students, how they didn’t provide a full picture of students’ capabilities and how high-stakes tests were not a good way to judge teacher quality. (The teachers unions are big donors to FairTest.)
Criticism of the SAT, in particular, has been a constant chorus, even from folks who seem like they would have an interest in its continuation. In 2008, when Wake Forest University made the SAT optional, test-prep service Princeton Review applauded the decision. By that point, though, the criticism had shifted toward complaints about how tests disadvantaged those who most needed a boost in college admissions. Princeton Review’s vice president claimed the SAT is “economically, racially and gender biased.”
Of course, there was no evidence for this in 2008 and there’s none today. The scores reflect how much students have learned at home and in school, and they are the best predictor we have of how students will do during their first year of college.
It’s clear that the folks who claim tests are biased have had a large effect on admissions policy. It’s just not the one they want us to think it is.
As the Journal noted, “Seniors gearing up for college applications said they are choosing to take the SAT and ACT to gain an advantage in an admissions landscape that was upended when most colleges decided to make the tests optional after the pandemic hit.” As one student explained, “If a bunch of kids at my school are applying with the tests and I’m not, I think it would hold me back.”
And, of course, that’s the point. The tests help colleges figure out among kids who have similar backgrounds and similar transcripts which ones to admit. Since administrators want a class that reflects a particular kind of racial and ethnic diversity, they have to be willing to overlook test scores for certain sets of kids.
Members of underrepresented groups needn’t submit their test scores; colleges will assume the best. But white students and Asian students will take the SATs as many times as they can and submit the scores to beat out their peers.
The admissions office has effectively created two different pools of students — those for whom tests are optional and those for whom they are more important than ever.
This fall, the Supreme Court will hear two cases regarding whether colleges are engaged in racially discriminatory admissions processes to favor blacks and Hispanics at the expense of others. Adopting a test-optional policy will presumably help the schools’ defense, at least in the forum of public opinion: How will anyone prove they are admitting minority students who are less qualified if those students never submit their scores in the first place?
But the point of these policies and their effects are an open secret. If more kids are taking the tests than they did last year, then these students, their parents, their teachers and their advisers have all figured out the reality of test-optional: It means different things for different people.
James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.