By Grace Gilson
As seniors make their final college decisions in the spring of 2023, high school juniors, college counselors, and admissions people across the country are preparing for the next cycle. One of the choices to be made by admission teams this year is whether or not to go ‘test-optional,’ or require the SAT or ACT for application to the college. When pandemic regulations were at their height, it was not possible for many seniors to take these standardized tests, causing almost every single college in the country to stop providing them. Yet, as we are now on the other side, the benefits and disadvantages of these tests are once again being weighed.
Brief History of Each Test:
In 1926, Carl Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test (later the Scholastic Assessment Test, now simply SAT) for the College Board, an adaptation of the Army IQ test that had been used in World War I. In 1934, for the first time, Harvard began to use the SAT to award scholarships. The following year, it became mandatory for application. In 1942 the Educational Testing Service, which owned the SAT at this point, received a patent for a machine that detects pencil markings, making the grading process much quicker. By 1957, more than half a million students took the SAT each year.
Everett Franklin Lindquist created the ACT test after teaching at the University of Iowa. The Measurement Research Center at the University of Iowa creates its own scoring machine, which holds the potential to score many many tests quickly. Lindquist suspected that its application could go far beyond just the University. 75,000 students took the first American College Testing (ACT) test in 1959. By the late 60s, nearly one million students took the ACT.
Supporters of test-optional policy may point out that without a test the school gets a more holistic view of each student, whereas opponents may highlight the research that indicates that, when combined with high school GPA, SAT scores are good predictions of college GPA and retention.
A frequently cited 2008 study, conducted by the researchers Frey and Detterman, claims that the SAT is a very good measure of intelligence. Yet, after a quick scan of the SAT website (https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/sat), it is unclear exactly what they are aiming to measure. In addition to intelligence, it is obvious that a student’s ability to work well in a short time under pressure is also tested, especially on the ACT. Socioeconomic status also tends to produce an effect on these tests, but when researchers controlled for these factors, the tests still prove to be decent measures of success.
One number does not determine anyone’s future. Whether it is a 1600, 1300, 1000, or anything else, a combination of determination and subject matter expertise can get anyone far. Yet, in college admissions, and amidst so many applications, it always has a feeling that an applicant is being reduced to one number.
Since these tests and the multimillion-dollar industry around them are probably going to be around for a long time, I think it is important for testing agencies and colleges to clarify what they glean from these scores. Do they measure how well a student works under pressure in the context of their whole application? Or, are they looking to see how well a student can apply what they have learned in a classroom to completely new surroundings? The test measures both of these things, which come naturally to some and prove to be a struggle for others. In an application where students choose not to submit, what are the assumptions?
I hope this article makes the reader consider what test optional means in the college admissions process, not only for themselves but also in the broader thought of how colleges measure potential students. Ultimately, the goal is to cultivate a class of learners who are ready to take the skills from the classroom to the world.
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Sackett P.R., Kuncel N.R., Beatty A.S., Rigdon J.L., Shen W., Kiger T.B. The role of socioeconomic status in SAT-grade relationships and in college admissions decisions. Psychol. Sci. 2012;23:1000–1007. doi: 10.1177/0956797612438732.
Westrick P.A., Marini J.P., Young L., Ng H., Shmueli D., Shaw E. Validity of the SAT® for Predicting First-Year Grades and Retention to the Second Year. College Board; New York, NY, USA: 2019.
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