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The Quad: As more schools go test-optional, the debate on standardized exams expands

By Samantha Dorfan

March 14, 2019 6:23 p.m.

Standardized tests have been a cornerstone of college applications since the 1900s, but over the past few years, more and more institutions are allowing applicants to opt out of them and direct their efforts elsewhere.

There are plenty of prestigious four-year universities with test-optional policies, including the University of Chicago, The George Washington University, and Pitzer College. A recent uptick in discussion about the utility of standardized tests has left many considering the possibility of the University of California joining the ranks.

The conversation surfaced among students at UCLA in February after Beyond the Score, a student group looking to raise awareness about the disadvantages of standardized testing, held a town hall during which they called these tests racist and socioeconomically biased.

In fact, university administrators have been discussing the issue since the beginning of the school year. In September, UC leaders announced the launch of a study to better understand the predictive abilities of the SAT and ACT. UC President Janet Napolitano requested that the Academic Senate continue the study for the duration of the 2018-2019 academic year.

Central to the discussion – among both students and university officials – is the question of whether these tests continue to measure what they were originally intended to.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test has roots in World War I where it was originally used as an IQ test called the Army Alpha. Dr. Carl Brigham, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, adapted the test for use in college admissions. It was used nonexperimentally for the first time in 1926 for considering gifted boys for a scholarship program at Harvard, whose then-president approved of the test because it measured innate intelligence rather than efficacy of high school education.

Similarly, today’s tests are supposed to provide a point of comparison to equalize students from different academic backgrounds.

Beyond the Score and other opponents of standardized testing argue that the test is more indicative of socioeconomic status because students with means to pay for private tutoring will likely earn higher scores than those without.

[RELATED: Standardized testing fails to reflect holistic achievement of college applicants]

Kevin Carlson, an SAT/ACT tutor and mathematics doctoral student, said he believes eliminating the test completely and admitting students on the basis of their interesting high school experiences would not fix this disparity.

He said students who can’t afford test prep courses likely will be unable to afford other pricey means of bolstering their college applications either, such as traveling abroad or doing a pre-college program at a university. In this sense, the issue is much broader than simply taking standardized testing out of the mix – socioeconomic bias seems to be ingrained in the system.

On the other hand, Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of education in the division of higher education and organizational change, said other means, such as predictive analytics, would still allow universities to compare their prospective students even if the test was eliminated from the admissions process.

Designing a computerized system that spits out a numerical value according to data from a student’s transcript and information about their high school could allow admissions officers to maintain the speed with which they review without sacrificing comparison with other applicants, Jaquette said.

At an institution like UCLA that receives over 100,000 applicants per year, this would be instrumental in examining the demographic in a more comprehensive way.

Conversely, Carlson said standardized tests do a decent job of assessing a student’s ability to think originally and creatively.

“In college, rather than performing well on a task you’ve been prepared for very specifically, you have to perform well on tasks that are a little ill-defined, that are very novel to you,” Carlson said. “These tests do a pretty impressive job of asking students questions that require new thinking, not just stored thinking.”

Held at the mercy of the clock, however, many students don’t have enough time to perform the kind of thinking these tests require. Others suffer from test anxiety which turns otherwise coherent thoughts into a jumbled mess.

“I’ve seen numerous students get to a point where they should have been performing at a certain level,” Carlson said. “(They) drop a standard deviation more in performance on test day and that’s awful.”

Additionally, data shows that if students decide to forego the anxiety of the standardized test and apply to test-optional schools, they are not at a disadvantage.

A large 2018 study compared data from 28 test optional-colleges and universities to institutions that require testing and found that the tests failed to identify talent and potential.

Although those who elected not to submit scores received slightly lower first-year grades, they ended up graduating at equivalent or higher rates than their score-submitting peers.

In terms of race, the test-optional institutions found that minority communities were less likely to submit scores and that there was an increase in the number of African American and Latino students applying and being admitted.

However, Jaquette warned that colleges with test-optional policies may just be acting in their own self-interest.

“What appears to be an effort to increase access by not requiring the SAT/ACT is a cynical numbers game they’re playing to increase their average SAT score,” Jaquette said.

The U.S. News & World Report factors in standardized test scores when they rank colleges and universities. As a result, the institutions that de-emphasize scores would likely see a drop in ranking. In the case of test optional schools, rankings increase because it’s the students with the highest scores who choose to submit them.

Jaquette said if U.S. News & World Report would stop including test scores in their calculations, colleges would be able to reduce the importance of scores in the admissions process without denting their reputations.

As one of the largest, most prestigious university networks in the world, the UC certainly has a reputation to uphold. Not only that, but should they decide to head down the test-optional path, the number of applicants likely will skyrocket as those who previously felt unqualified by their scores contend for a spot.

Clearly, this issue can’t be solved with an answer sheet and a No. 2 pencil – it’s far more complex than trying to decipher which number comes next in an arithmetic sequence.

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Samantha Dorfan
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