Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images
The battle over standardized testing came roaring back to life last week, nearly four years after COVID-19 forced most institutions to temporarily eschew testing requirements.
The New York Times led its Jan. 7 morning newsletter with an article titled “The Misguided War on the SAT,” breathing new life into a long-standing debate over testing’s role in admissions, just as many colleges are revisiting their pandemic-era policies.
In recent years, the debate seems to have shifted in favor of testing’s critics. The SAT and ACT—along with their postgraduate cousin, the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE—saw significant declines in numbers of test takers over the past decade. From 2014 to 2019, the number of four-year institutions with test-optional policies increased by 13 percent, according to Education Department data. Some institutions, including all nine University of California campuses and the prestigious California Institute of Technology, stopped considering test scores at all.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic closed testing sites in spring 2020, forcing hundreds of colleges—including the entire Ivy League—to go test optional out of necessity. As the pandemic wore on, those temporary policies were extended, first through 2022 and then largely to the end of the current academic year. For this past application cycle, only 4 percent of institutions listed on the Common App required standardized test scores.
Now many that remained test optional have a few more months to decide whether to keep those policies. So far, the institutions that have reached a final decision have been divided: Columbia University and William & Mary cemented their test-optional policies indefinitely last March, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University reinstated testing requirements in 2022.
The Times article, written by David Leonhardt, argues for a return to testing as the norm. Citing a study published early this month by Harvard-based Opportunity Insights, it argues that many common critiques of standardized tests are poorly informed and that scores are by and large a better indicator of academic aptitude than high school GPAs.
“I think since the pandemic we’ve learned a lot more about how the test-optional policies are operating in practice, with data to support, instead of just anecdotally,” said John Friedman, co-founder of Opportunity Insights and the lead researcher on the study, which links test scores to academic success at selective institutions. “And what we’re learning is, without the test scores, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty about whether that student is really at the level that [highly selective colleges] require.”
Janet Godwin, CEO of the nonprofit ACT, which administers its namesake exam, argued that standardized test scores are more important than ever post-pandemic.
“ACT has always believed that the score is just one measure of student success—in the face of systemic, persistent grade inflation, it’s an increasingly critical one,” she wrote in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.
But winning the “war on the SAT” could be a tall order for testing advocates. Three application cycles of nearly universal test-optional policies may have entrenched the expectation for flexibility in the next generation of high school graduates. And a growing concern over equity in higher ed has solidified the already-rapid move toward more holistic admissions.
“The debate over whether the role of standardized tests in admissions should be reduced—that’s over. It’s already happened,” said Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest and an outspoken critic of standardized testing. “The question now is what happens next? Will they be completely marginalized or hang on at more rejective institutions?”
To Test or Not to Test
Last June, Brown University president Christina Paxson summed up the dilemma in an alumni magazine article: on the one hand, data show that test scores are the best indicator of a student’s likely academic success at selective institutions like Brown, she wrote; on the other, requiring tests can dissuade low-income and nonwhite students from applying—an effect that is especially concerning in the wake of last year’s affirmative action ban.
In September Paxson established an ad hoc committee to examine Brown’s admission practices, including early-application options, legacy preferences and testing requirements. University spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the committee will make its recommendations to the board before the start of the spring semester next week, including on “whether Brown should require standardized test scores or sustain its interim ‘test-optional’ policy.” The university will announce a new long-term policy before the next application cycle.
Other institutions are actively considering their temporary policies as well. Yale University spokesperson Karen Peart told Inside Higher Ed the university would make a decision by “this winter or early spring”—meaning, in the next few months. And Cornell University is nearing the end of a “two-year period of deliberate experimental review” of its test-optional policy.
Friedman, of Opportunity Insights, said applicants should err on the side of caution and take the test, because he anticipates that those without scores will have a harder time getting into highly selective institutions, regardless of their testing policies—and that colleges are taking an even closer look at scores after a few years of widespread high school grade inflation post-pandemic.
“During the pandemic, colleges basically decided to give a pass if you didn’t take the SAT or ACT … they assumed it was an act of God, essentially,” he said. “I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pretend like there’s no data in the omission of a score.”
But the pandemic-inspired experiment with test-optional policies appears to have convinced many college leaders of its benefits: 92 percent of officials at colleges that made the switch during the pandemic said they would support continuing that policy indefinitely, according to Inside Higher Ed’s 2023 admissions survey. Even Godwin, the ACT CEO, conceded that test optional was “the new normal” in a 2022 interview with Inside Higher Ed.
The Supreme Court’s decision striking down affirmative action also injected newfound importance into the arguments against testing. After the ruling, experts and leaders—including the Biden administration—proposed decreasing the value placed on scores as a race-neutral way to maintain class diversity.
Leonhardt made the case in the Times that weighing test scores in admissions decisions could actually help colleges maintain diversity. Friedman didn’t go that far, but he said there’s a popular misunderstanding of standardized testing’s relationship to race and income.
“I like to use the metaphor of a 100-meter dash. If one group of students has a faster 100-meter-dash time than another, the entirely legitimate concern is, is there something wrong with the timer?” he said. “Our research shows that the test really does seem to accurately measure how fast you’re running. The problem is students have had vastly different resources and opportunities to train.”
Bello said that’s precisely the issue: what the tests are measuring is not academic aptitude but familiarity with the expectations of elite academia. If students from private boarding schools are more likely to do better on tests and thus in college, it’s because those colleges—and the exams that open their ivy-clad gates—were devised as a continuation of their exclusive educational experience.
‘Cherry-Picked’ Data or Simple Truths?
Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy at the University of Washington, teaches a class on statistics and quantitative methods. Each week, he brings his students a news story in which data are exploited to support a foregone conclusion; last week his example was Leonhardt’s piece.
“Quantitative data is often brought to rhetorical arguments for the same reason children’s books have illustrations: to make the author’s point,” he said.
Vigdor said it’s nonsensical to compare test scores and GPAs one on one when in reality they are pieces of an increasingly varied puzzle of admission considerations.
“If the question at hand is ‘If colleges can only base their admissions decisions on one thing, what should that thing be?’ then sure, the data shows test scores are a little better than high school grades,” he said. “But that’s not the question relevant to this policy debate. It does happen to be the question that delivers a good answer for the testing companies.”
Leonhardt actually uses this point to make his argument in favor of testing: wealthy students are more likely to take private music lessons or have a dozen résumé-padding extracurriculars recommended by counselors, he writes, whereas everyone takes the same SAT. But Vigdor says that framing is a sleight of hand that masks the ways standardized test scores—when considered as one piece of a decision matrix—can tip the advantage slightly in favor of wealthy white applicants.
Bello said his primary frustration with Leonhardt’s piece has been the tendency to generalize its conclusions and apply them to all of higher education.
“In reality, places like The New York Times are almost myopically focused on the Ivies and the most highly rejective institutions,” he said. “It’s like they’ve got horse blinders on. But families are reading it and saying, ‘This applies to everyone!’”
Friedman said his research is not meant to be extrapolated to a broad swath of colleges and universities—only to the highly selective ones. In those cases, he said, test scores do add a significant measure of aptitude.
“The data is certainly not dispositive for more open-access institutions. In many cases, at those colleges grades are a better predictor of success than test scores,” he said. “But at a certain level of extreme selectivity, getting a 4.0 doesn’t mean much.”
Friedman also clarified that, unlike Leonhardt, he holds no strong opinion about whether his research makes the case for testing requirements. He just wants the data to speak for themselves.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision … there’s nothing wrong with admitting students who you know are going to struggle,” he said. “But ignoring that there is a decision to make is not the right approach. We need to be honest with ourselves about what the trade-offs are.”
It’s been a difficult decade for testing companies, and an especially challenging few years.
The pandemic forced every test from the SAT to the Medical College Admission Test to quickly develop online infrastructure, which proved difficult, and the suspension of testing requirement meant fewer students than ever took the tests. Last year Educational Testing Services, which administers the SAT and owns the GRE, and ACT each laid off over 100 employees due to post-pandemic difficulties. Testing companies are even resorting to unusual marketing tactics to stay relevant: ETS is selling its GRE at a discount, and the ACT ran a buy one, get one free test sale in November.
This year could prove to be a critical juncture for the testing industry. The College Board will administer a shortened digital SAT for the first time this spring, and a lot rides on its success. Companies like the ACT and ETS, in increasingly precarious financial straits, are counting on a rebound in test takers.
“It’s a very convenient time, from the College Board’s perspective, for this conversation to happen in the way that it did,” he said. “It seems to me that they essentially shopped around this cherry-picked argument that seems to be a PR move to benefit a particular subset of schools and of course themselves.”
Leonhardt’s piece came out in the Times the same day the College Board launched its annual three-day Higher Education Colloquium, where its leaders and advocates meet with admissions professionals from dozens of higher ed institutions. And however insular the debate may be among highly selective institutions, the decisions Harvard, Yale and their ilk make regarding testing this year will likely have reverberating effects across higher education.
“The important thing to keep in mind is who stands to make money off this,” Vigdor said. “I have confidence in the integrity of the researchers, but would it be out of the question to assume someone from the College Board reached out to Leonhardt and suggested the topic, or that the study was prompted by a timely data dump from these selective colleges? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly seen it happen before.”
A spokesperson for the College Board denied any involvement in recent publications about the SAT’s benefits in admissions. But they said they knew that colleges were nearing decisions on whether to keep their test-optional policies and understood the impact that research like Friedman’s study could have on the outcomes.
“Many colleges and universities made temporary test-optional policies exactly because they wanted to gather the data and understand the impact,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We can’t speculate on the decisions they will make about their admissions policies. Given recent changes in the national landscape and the growing body of research affirming how the SAT helps colleges and universities identify, admit and support students of diverse backgrounds, we expect that many colleges and universities are carefully considering.”
(This story has been updated to correct the date the New York Times story ran and the name of the ACT.)