Colleges Should Admit Students Without the ACT or SAT

It’s time for a new way to judge applicants, write Vincent Pan and Mo Hyman.

June 1, 2021

If you walked into the admissions office at any college or university in America and suggested judging applicants based on a new metric proven primarily to predict parental income and education, you would be laughed out of the room.

Yet overwhelming research has shown that those markers of privilege are exactly what the SAT and ACT best measure.

That’s why the legal settlement our organizations reached last month with the University of California system to stop using these exams is a watershed moment in the fight for educational equity.

In theory, standardized tests ought to provide a measure that is both fair and predictive. That is, they should give individuals and groups an equal shot while telling us something meaningful about whether students are likely to succeed. In practice, the ACT and SAT do neither.

If we know that these exams primarily reflect family privilege, and we know that centuries of systemic racism have overwhelmingly concentrated privilege among white families, then we have to ask ourselves: How is basing college admissions on the tests not a racist calculation?

The University of California has ultimately agreed with this reality by removing a demonstrably discriminatory barrier to the nation’s most prestigious public college system. This is a major step toward equal opportunity for California students. And we are proud to have played a part -- alongside a full orchestra of students and college access advocates over many decades -- in effecting that change.

Importantly, this settlement guarantees that University of California campuses will exclude the SAT and ACT from the admissions process completely rather than making them optional, as the system had originally proposed. As Alameda County Superior Court judge Brad Seligman noted in a ruling this fall, retaining the option creates an advantage for some students over others by allowing them to benefit from an inherently unequal practice.

But the bigger question is: What’s next?

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of American life and shined a light on the myriad inequities that dominate our entire educational system. It has also forced us to re-evaluate and rework that system -- sometimes for the better.

In response to the pandemic, more than 60 percent of four-year colleges and universities dropped ACT/SAT requirements for fall 2021. The University of California was among them, and -- not coincidentally -- more students than ever applied, with students of color making up more than three-quarters of all applicants. As a result, UC’s Class of 2025 will be among the most diverse on record.

Now it’s time for every college and university in America to follow suit. Unfortunately, some colleges are already reverting to their old ways. They are making a terrible mistake.

Instead, we should seize this opportunity to create a new model for college admissions that accounts for the reality of systemic racism and the link between privilege and access. It is a moment to jettison archaic tests and usher in a more dynamic era of holistic admissions focused on proven measures of college success, including academic motivation and self-efficacy. And it should spur colleges to build the conditions for that success -- for example, fostering communities where students of all backgrounds feel a sense of belonging. Colleges that have systematized privilege from the start with admissions and carry it through at all levels now have the chance to course correct through more equitable practices that target institutionalized racism and inequity.

High schools, too, have the opportunity to pivot from a narrow focus on punitive college entrance exams to a broader one. Instead, they should emphasize programs and policies that value cultural capital, noncognitive skills and -- the one factor that studies find to be a genuine predictor of college success -- academic curiosity as reflected by grades and college credit courses.

And finally, it is time to take a bold and hard look at how deeply invested our system of higher education is in the suite of products pedaled by the College Board. This one organization, for which excessive testing is a cash cow, plays an enormous role in determining who does and does not gain admission to college.

The allure of standardized metrics for college admissions is understandable. A truly objective way for students to showcase their potential regardless of race or class would be a powerful equalizer. Sadly, the SAT and ACT are just the opposite -- they obfuscate students’ ability while amplifying entrenched power structures.

If America’s colleges and universities can no longer deny this reality, and if they want to live up to their promise as drivers of social and economic opportunity, there’s only one choice: ax the exams.

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Vincent Pan is co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. Mo Hyman is executive director of College Access Plan.

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