When thinking about the college admissions process, our mind normally shortcuts to a few different places: grades, GPA, extracurricular activities, and SAT/ACT scores. Mix a quality version of those four ingredients and you have a college acceptance pie. And while the recipe may seem simple, there is one ingredient that may not be as sweet as the others. In fact, one ingredient was crafted without certain students in mind.
For many years, the SAT/ACT was considered one of the most important factors in the college admissions process. It was thought to provide objective information about students and detail their projected success rate at a given university. However after many years and countless research experiments, studies have proven that this is simply not the case for low-income, minority students. Instead of providing access to students of all backgrounds, standardized tests can act as a gatekeeper to elite universities.
Researchers at Georgetown University studied this concept in-depth by considering what the college landscape would look like if colleges accepted students based on their SAT scores alone. In short, colleges would accept far more white and wealthy students than their low-income, minority student counterparts. In fact, the number of white students would increase from 66% to 75% and black and Latinx students would decrease from 19% to 11%. Reporting test scores only exacerbates larger issues of diversity and equity as 60% of students going to highly selective universities and colleges hail from higher echelons of socioeconomic status already. Furthermore, studies have proven that standardized tests are not true predictors of potential collegiate success but rather delineate the wealthy from the poor through high or low scores, respectively (according to researchers Guiner and Bell cited by Stewart and Haynes). Children of wealthy parents often have the money to pay for standardized test tutoring and private college-prep schools, and foresight to set their children up for success earlier on. Low-income, minority parents often do not have the luxury of time, knowledge, or money to allocate to their children’s success. However, that does not mean that these students cannot or will not thrive on a college campus.
According to “Virtually No Difference”, the largest study of college students– overseeing 123,000 students across 33 different colleges– found that colleges that do not require SAT/ACT scores see virtually no difference in academic performance. The study concluded that high school grades are a better predictor of collegiate success than standardized test scores. The article further explained that “students with low high school grades but high test scores generally receive low college grades, while those with high grades in high school, but low test scores, generally receive high grades in college.”
Another study performed by Hoffman and Lowitzski and published in The Review of Higher Education titled, “Predicting College Success Using High School Grades and Test Scores: Limitations for Minority Students,” looked specifically at the potential for academic success before and after matriculation for students of color. They expressed similar findings that the prior achievements of students of color—such as high school grades—better equip them to “to find and create their own way than do their natural abilities or aptitudes, as measured by standardized tests.”
For this reason, many schools have transitioned into the test-optional model, in which students are not required to send in their standardized test scores. One of the most acclaimed examples of moving to a test-optional model is the University of Chicago. Last year, the school dropped its SAT score requirement. As a result, the University of Chicago saw a 20% increase of first-generation and low-income students, according to Inside Higher Ed’s article, “Chicago Sees Success By Dropping SAT Requirement.” Not only does this open the doors for students of color, it radically helps colleges achieve their goals. They enrich their university’s experience by providing students with the opportunity to sit in classrooms with students from unique socioeconomic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. It also provides minority students with a glimmering opportunity to break cycles of poverty and lack of access to education in families.
There is hope for students yet. As conversations surrounding unrepresented students continue, opportunities for equitable and accessible education become a reality. And maybe, just maybe, we get change the recipe to include better ingredients to the college acceptance pie.