What's the future for the SAT and ACT?

by Jeff Camp | April 10, 2022 | 0 Comments
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Testing fate

California’s education system changed enormously in 2021. There was the pandemic, of course, and distance learning and all that. But one of the changes that may prove fateful in the long run is the widespread elimination of the SAT and ACT from the college application process.

Prior to the pandemic, the SAT and ACT had become a rite of academic adolescence. More than four million SAT/ACT tests were taken in the peak year, 2018.

Pandemic closures interfered with testing in 2020 and 2021. In a sudden wave, hundreds of selective colleges announced in 2021 that they would no longer require the SAT or ACT as part of their admission process. Faced with logistical obstacles and a growing sense that the tests might not be necessary, the number of tests taken plummeted.

In early 2022, the California State University took a huge step, announcing that it would eliminate the SAT/ACT requirement. The news was quickly met with widespread enthusiasm. Many people dislike standardized tests, with a combination of passion and reason. Time will tell what effect the change will have on students, but it will almost certainly mean a lower “participation rate” in the ACT/SAT as part of the college process.

Plainly, this change matters to K-12 schools and students, but the impact on students is not straightforward. It’s even less clear whether the decision will actually make much difference to colleges, which is part of the reason so many of them dumped the requirement, at least for now. If they can do the job without the tests and look like heroes for doing so, why insist?

How do colleges select students?

Overall, the education system is a lot less selective than most people think.

Most students graduate high school with a diploma. About two-thirds continue their education by enrolling in a college, as discussed in Ed100 Lesson 9.8.

Most colleges actually are not selective. California’s massive system of public community colleges serves anyone who wants to learn. The state’s largest system of four-year colleges, the California State University, is far more focused on letting students in than on keeping them out. In 2021 the CSU system had an overall admission rate of 83%.

Selective colleges are the exception. By definition, selective colleges proudly don’t have enough seats for all of the students who apply. Some of the world’s most famous colleges are highly selective, from Harvard to Hogwarts. Top schools in the Ivy League, for example, routinely turn away more than 90% of the students who apply. Even for exquisitely prepared high school students, the odds of admission at these schools are so long that some college counselors call them lottery schools. Getting into these colleges is so difficult that some families will cheat to get there.

Reputation matters a lot to colleges, which compete with one another for faculty, for grants, for media coverage, and for students. What determines a college’s reputation? More than anything else, reputation is a function of rankings and reviews. Test scores matter a lot to colleges because they factor strongly in these rankings. By selecting students with high scores, colleges provide an uncomplicated, easy-to-compare signal that their students are top-notch. Do parents and employers care about test scores and rankings? Of course they do. (For a well-presented critique of college rankings and the selective college admission system, listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series on the subject.)

Students: It’s really not about you

Every year, high school students watch in disbelief as some of their peers are accepted to elite colleges while others, surely better-qualified, are rejected. It can seem almost random. To understand why this happens, it helps to internalize an uncomfortable truth: colleges aren’t actually looking for the best students. Great students matter, of course, but the real goals are complicated.

When the University of California (UC), California’s most selective system of public colleges, announced that it would not be using ACT and SAT scores, it announced the elements that it will consider. It describes the process as comprehensive review:

Comprehensive Review elements (UC)

Academic grade point average in all completed A-G courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses.

Number of, content of and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum A-G requirements.

Number of and performance in UC-approved honors and Advanced Placement courses.

Identification by UC as being ranked in the top 9 percent of their high school class ("eligible in the local context," or ELC).

Quality of a student's senior-year program, as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

Quality of their academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in their high school.

Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas.

Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.

Recent, marked improvement in academic performance, as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.

Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student's promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of a student's high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.

Academic accomplishments in light of a student's life experiences and special circumstances.

Location of a student's secondary school and residence.

The UC system enjoys the advantage of being huge. For private selective colleges, the criteria are even more complex and even less clear.

What would you do if you were in charge?

Imagine the challenges you would face as a college admissions officer in a smallish selective college, assigned to review and score every application from students in the state of California, plus a few other states. It’s a huge job, fraught with competing objectives. There are more than 2,000 high schools in California. Some are rigorous, and others aren’t. You cannot know them all. At the end of the process, you have to make recommendations to the admissions committee. Your recommendation has to include students who will be able to pay full tuition and who are likely to accept if offered a spot. As an admissions officer, you can take a few approaches. You can fill seats by focusing on a subset of the state’s schools, building relationships with counselors to help create feeder schools.

Your college probably wants you to accept students in rough balance by gender, with a spread of interests and perspectives. The school needs students who might go on to major in subjects that match what the school offers, with an appropriate balance of students interested in humanities, technical subjects, and arts. You’ll want to avoid offering admission to students who aren’t serious applicants, because rankings include measures of yield — a measure of the percentage of offers that are accepted. To predict whether a student will accept, you’ll try to check for demonstrated interest by squinting at the wording of the essay. Some even check whether applicants have opened emails from the college. The criteria for admission can be very specific, especially when it comes to admission of athletes. Oh, and the music department says they need an oboist.

What replaces the ACT and SAT?

People care about college rankings. So do colleges, in a love/hate way. For many years, SAT and ACT scores have played important roles in those rankings. College rankings will go on, regardless of whether the ACT and SAT factor as strongly in them. They still might. It would be premature to count them out.

Assessing students and high schools in a statistically meaningful way is hard work. The SAT and ACT are serious exams developed by serious people who care about the connection between their work and equitable outcomes for all students. These professionals are sometimes accused of terrible motives because of what the scores show: some student are better-prepared than others, and there are patterns. Students who come from schools in disadvantaged communities tend to have a disadvantage on the tests. When the scores are viewed without nuance or context, they underestimate students’ potential.

A common critique of the SAT and ACT is that students from relatively wealthy families and communities have an edge. By studying, taking practice tests, and working with tutors, students can improve their test-taking skills in ways that improve their score. The process also involves some actual learning — shoring up math skills and reading skills. But it takes time and support to make these improvements, and not all families have the luxury of time and resources.

In 2018, the makers of the SAT briefly proposed a service to help admissions officers evaluate the different level of challenges that students face in the form of an adversity score. The proposal was widely criticized as an overreach. Evaluating students in the context of the hardships they face is, for now, left to individual admissions officers to work out.

If public opinion allows them to do it, most college admissions officers will prefer to continue accepting SAT and ACT scores from students. High test scores don’t tell a student’s full story, but they can help admissions officers spot “diamonds in the rough” in a way that simple GPAs cannot. High school grades mean different things in different schools, and it’s hopelessly difficult for admissions officers to evaluate and assign a weight to every school. Wealthier communities are more likely to have schools that offer a broad curriculum, including accelerated options. Some research suggests that grade inflation tends to favor the wealthy.

The SAT and ACT deserve to be considered in context. If they do their job imperfectly, what, realistically, are the alternatives? Should they be blamed when they are misused, for example to rank schools in unthinking ways? These tests can be used as tools for equity, as the Los Angeles Times argues. High scores on these tests can help admissions officers spot students with uncommon academic promise in schools with weak curricular options. Without the tests, these students would be even easier to overlook.

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