Do the SATs Still Matter?

By Pat Brothwell - January 29, 2020

If you were a college bound student back in high school, think back to how much time you spent stressing about the SATs or ACTs. We'll assume that at minimum, they were at least an item of concern. To others, it may have felt like your scores held the very keys to your future. The college admissions process has long put such strong emphasis on these test scores, but signs of change are in the air.


2019: A Pretty Bad Year


2019 was not a good year for the highly selective application processes many elite universities employ to determine who gets into their school. Because these institutions place such weight on the SAT and ACT scores of applicants, these standardized tests are facing increased scrutiny. Take a look at what happened in the last 12 months: 


  • Operation Varsity Blues - While no one from the College Board, the nonprofit organization who creates and oversees the SAT, was implicated in Operation Varsity Blues (think Aunt Becky), last year's high profile scandal shone a spotlight on what's been suspected for years: families of privilege can easily game the college application system through any means available. Data has shown that even those privileged folks not bribing proctors still have a distinct advantage in these tests.  This article by CNBC provides a plethora of reasons that "Rich Students Get Better SAT Scores, " while this US News & World Report piece talks about how schools would essentially get whiter, richer, and more male if they based admission solely on the SAT. 
  • The Adversity Score -In May of 2019, Doug Belkin of the Wall Street Journal reported that the College Board would start implementing an "adversity score" to every student who takes the SAT. The College Board, long concerned with income inequality influencing test results, was set to implement this adversity score in 2020. In August, the WSJ reported that the College Board dropped the initiative after receiving some "thoughtful criticism." In November, Belkin reported that the WSJ obtained the College Board adversity score and had a Georgetown University data scientist evaluate the adjusted scores for over 10,000 schools across the country. The results are eye-opening. We suggest reading the article, but as Belkin sums it up, when the adversity score is applied, "some of the poorest schools punched well above their weight while some of the wealthiest performed poorly."
  • Selling Your Scores - WSJ's Doug Belkin also broke the story in early November that the College Board sells test-takers personal information at 47 cents per name to universities who use it to bolster the image of their own exclusivity. This is an entirely legal practice, as students opt to do this, with the exam asking, "if they want to make their information available to schools, " but Belkin writes how many high school students aren't entirely sure what that entails. 
  • UC California Lawsuit -  Over the last few years, a number of large universities made the SAT and ACT optional for their applicants. This New York Times article does a good job exploring the implications of this. The bigger news is that currently, a lawsuit filed against the University of California could mean that the nation's largest state school system doesn't just make these tests optional but drops them altogether. A coalition of advocacy groups filed the suit against the UC system, claiming that the standardized tests are biased and that using them as an admissions requirement impedes access to higher education to lower income students, minorities, and others. Prior to the lawsuit, some high-level UC system staff had already expressed concern about the weight placed on these standardized tests.


While this decision is still pending, there's no question that if the UC system eliminates the SAT from its application requirements, it will have enormous ramifications in the college admissions process throughout the country. 


What Do These Tests Predict? 


A critique that's long faced both the SATs and ACTs is that they don't do much to determine a student's actual college or career success. 


  • The Test is Teachable - While both sets of tests claim that they measure a student's intelligence, logic, and critical thinking skills, both have a series of quirks people have exploited for strategically higher scores. There's an entire cottage industry devoted to "test prep," with companies like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Varsity Tutors raking in millions to help students score higher. The families who pay for these services often already have a head start. They're typically well-connected, affluent, and have the resources to spend thousands of dollars on tutors, practice tests, and essay coaches. 
  • No Indicator of Success - A 2019 study by the University of Chicago found that the relationship between college graduation and ACT scores is "weak" at best. A report by the Urban Institute found there's a stronger correlation between high school GPA and college completion than standardized tests. The Policy Analysis for California Education found the same thing: high school grades are the best single indicator of collegiate performance. 


A Change in Focus


Even if the UC schools eliminate the SAT/ACT application requirement, we may never see standardized testing go away. However, if we could stop putting so much emphasis on the score of one or two exams, we could put more focus on the following: 


  • Soft Skills - We believe SAT scores are not indicative of how well you'll do in your career. Sure, logic, a robust vocabulary, and critical thinking skills are of the upmost importance, but there's an untold number of ways to achieve these skills that don't include a 5-hour exam. Think of it this way: has any employer ever asked you what your SAT score was? In all reality, they probably didn't care. But they might be interested in how you handle a crisis, solve a difficult problem, or interact with team members. 
  • A Career First Approach - If you've been following our blogs, you know we've been talking about focusing on post-secondary plans that best align with your future career paths, not just the status quo. We need less standardized test prep, and more focus on career exploration, soft skills development, and work-based learning experiences.
  • A Return to Equity - We've been hammering home the point that a college education is not the only path to career success. The intense focus on testing is geared towards one path: that of the competitive four-year university, which is fraught with bias. The SATs/ACTs themselves may not favor wealthy, privileged students in and of themselves, but access to the private tutoring, prep classes, and elite schooling that helps boost those scores is almost exclusively limited to those who can afford it.




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