Keep the SAT and ACT

The tests may not be perfect, but they offer admissions officers key information, writes Larry S. Su.

August 2, 2021

One of the most puzzling and unfathomable things I have witnessed as an international student and, later, as a faculty member and citizen is the assault on education at all levels in the United States. There is the constant call for academic institutions to lower their academic standards or abolish standardized tests like ACT and SAT because, in the words of some proponents, such tests are racist in nature and inherently discriminate against minority and disabled students. Sadly, such loud cries are gaining more ground and putting more pressure on colleges and universities to opt out of or cancel the standard tests. Such totally irrational and irresponsible pushes, in the name of helping minority students, are leaving American students unprepared for college, hindering minority students’ finishing of education, sending a wrong message about what American institutions of learning value, destroying America’s fundamental beliefs in hard work and personal accountability, and further putting America’s national and international interest at risk.

What caught my attention on this issue was the extensive report recently of the University of California’s forced decision to drop ACT and SAT scores in college admission. This decision was made in spite of the report by the university’s Academic Senate that reached a totally opposite conclusion. The Senate cited research to show the tests actually help system campuses identify talented students from low-income or minority backgrounds.

The university’s decision came at a time when COVID-19 has disrupted students from taking the tests since last year and the nationwide protest for racial equality, but this opting out of or canceling of ACT and SAT has been in the making for years, repeating the seemingly sound arguments that these standardized tests do not accurately test students’ college preparedness, that test questions are often racist and that they favor children from rich and well-educated families who can afford to pay for prep courses. Sadly, colleges and universities often succumb to such accusations and pressures.

Granted, the two tests have never been perfect, and they were never intended as the sole criterion to admit students. In fact, very few colleges and universities are using them alone when deciding whether to admit a student. In combination with their transcripts, essays, creative projects, extracurricular activities or teacher recommendations, the standardized tests have been mostly effective in identifying students’ college preparedness for decades, so they have been widely used by colleges and universities of all levels, and most Americans have faiths in the two tests, though some with reservations.

If the two tests are much flawed and questionable in giving accurate assessment of a student’s academic preparedness, how can anybody be sure about the better efficacy of high school transcripts, extracurricular activities and student essays? When 50 percent of high school graduates are given A’s, would anyone claim that they are more accurate in assessing students’ academic readiness? What if the essay is written by somebody else? What if the activities are made up or exaggerated? As Jefferey Selingo, author of Who Gets in and Why, writes, “So the two tests are problematic, the other criteria are even murkier.” He points out that the more selective the institution, the murkier its admission standards are.

Emphasizing the effectiveness and usefulness of the standardized test does not gloss over its flaws. What it indicates is that, flawed as it is, it is often used as an important criterion by the majority of countries in college admissions. For instance, Japan uses the National Center Test for University Admissions that is held annually during a weekend in January over a period of two days. If students miss it, they have to wait a year to retake it. South Koreans take the College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT, in November. The test has been widely embraced for its efficiency, effectiveness and emphasis on merit. The Finnish use the Finnish Matriculation Examination in combination with each university’s own test and other merits to admit students. Singapore does not have its own national tests, but it places faith in the American-designed ACT or SAT. In contrast to these standard tests, the United States does not have its own state-designed tests, an anomaly that should make citizens ask, why does the United States not have its own national test? Who has been preventing it from having its own test? How is America’s national interest affected because of the lack of it?

On the accusation that the rich and well-educated families have resources to send their children to test preps that boost their children’s scores and that high SAT and ACT scores correlate with the wealth and education of students’ families, I can see what the accusation is driving at, but it is hard for most people to accept that is the reason to abolish the tests. Rich families have every right to use their resources to help their children to do well in tests, so abolishing the two tests because of differences in family income and parental education is against logic. While it is reasonable to emphasize equal opportunities, it is impractical to emphasize equal results. Given the diversity of the United States in race, gender, culture and income, it is virtually impossible to demand absolute equality.

Opting out of or canceling the ACT and SAT also sends a wrong message to students. When academically advanced students do not feel proud of themselves, when they are called nerds and isolated in schools, it says a lot about our culture and what we value as a nation. It says that test scores, excellent grades and competitive prizes are not as appreciated as popularity. When education is often considered an equalizer and an important tool to uplift students and their families from poverty, to lay all the family and personal woes on the society or the rich or the well-performing Asians does not uplift anyone. On the contrary, they would leave our students further behind in courses like math, statistics and engineering.

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Look at the academic performance of American students with students of other countries in international and national tests. The American students often land in the middle or lower middle. One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The 2015 result placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

What would America’s withdrawal from and the filling up of STEM fields by large numbers of foreign nationals mean for America’s short- and long-term national interest? Will this lack affect America’s lead in science and innovation now and in the years to come? Have the relevant institutions realized this problem? Has the United States as a whole woken to this crisis? Or do we continue to bury our heads in the sand and refuse to see our comparative decline over the past decades, particularly in the last 20 years, when the United States’ dominance in GDP, military and science has been challenged by China on all fronts? What can we learn from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Finland in terms of their educational policies and practices?

However, what is emphasized here is not just standard test scores and grades; they will eventually translate into our professional workers’ competence in handling their work tasks. Incompetence in performing work-related duties and overreliance on foreign nationals in STEM fields will weaken America’s competitive edge in science and engineering and compromise America’s national interest. It puts America at the mercy of foreign competitors.

It is time that the United States stopped the blame game of pitching one group of citizens against another, for it does not help any group. On the contrary, it creates tension and division, weakening the unity of the country. Stop making the group of white parents feel bad because they have resources to invest in their children’s prep courses so that they can do better in the standard tests; stop making the academically advanced Asian American students feel bad just because the rest of them are not as good. Instead we as a country should reward these students, because they are our citizens, and their excellence is our excellence.

It is a bit relief and assurance to see that in the midst of various attacks on standard tests launched by institutions, individuals and media pundits, many colleges and universities still stand their ground and insist on the value of standard tests. In 2018 the University of Chicago became the most prestigious and highest-ranked university to adopt a test-optional policy. While some might interpret it as bombshell news, I deem it contains no new information at all. Why? Because the University of Chicago has never based its admission on just the two tests, as no other institution of higher learning in the United States has. It always uses the holistic approach to admit students. A statement from the University of Chicago’s Office of Admissions states, “The SAT, ACT, and other standard measures can continue to be an important part of the University of Chicago’s holistic admission process for students. These tests can provide valuable information about a student which we and other colleges will consider alongside the other elements in a student’s application.”

A blog post released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the midst of the global pandemic last year says, “We will continue to require the SAT or the ACT, because our research has shown these tests, in combination with a student’s high school grades and coursework, are predictive of success in our challenging curriculum. While we know these tests are not perfect, they do provide an informative and consistent measure of a student’s academic potential.”

It is important to understand that the pandemic and the national protest for racial equality are the broad context where the cry to opt out of or cancel the standard tests sounds the loudest. The majority of the American people will not be swayed by movements or slogans as by hard and objective research. Political activists and media pundits seldom invest time in doing the tedious and hard work of research and finding out the root of the problem. They are better at labeling and playing identity politics. Such self-deceptive, divisive and self-destructive rhetoric does not benefit our students, nor our country; it harms our national unity and America’s national and international interest.

I teach in an urban institution where 80 percent of enrollment is minority students. Except a few who would find excuses for their poor academic performance, what I see in my daily teaching is how our students make a great effort to overcome all kinds of challenges, including financial, to get an education, which is the ultimate equalizer and will eventually help them and their families to change their families’ financial situations. It is their determination and dedication that inspire me and many of my colleagues to do our part to help them to fulfill their American dream. To constantly tell students that they are discriminated against and their poor scores are caused by the system does not help them at all; neither do students buy that politically charged rhetoric.

Opting out of or canceling the standard tests is a naïve, uninformed and oversimplified solution to a deeply rooted social problem of inequality. While the United States is addressing it, education should not be a victim. I am all for improving the ACT and SAT, but before we find any tests that are better, let’s make the best use of the tests while keeping in mind their weaknesses. To tear them down without anything to replace with would harm the U.S. in the long run. Therefore, schools and educators should continue to stand up to the misinformation on tests; they should insist on high standards for students in tests and coursework. Parents and students should hold the schools accountable for committing to high-quality education and putting the students’ interest, not politics, at the center. To tear down a structure is easy, but to build up something is difficult, for it needs careful research, thoughtful thinking and open-minded perspective. Through concerted efforts of our citizens, we can decide the future of our education and our country.

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Larry S. Su is a professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago.

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