The SAT is Toast—What Will Take its Place?

August 21, 2018 - by Buck Goldstein

Recent events suggest the standardized test for admission to college is under siege and some think it is on the way out.

An announcement by the University of Chicago that the SAT will no longer be required is a canary in the coal mine, giving permission to other elite schools to rethink standardized testing. At the same time, a lawsuit alleging the Harvard admissions process is biased against Asian Americans has revealed evidence that the SAT provides little value at Harvard since the entire incoming class could be populated several times over with near-perfect scoring students. The same can be said for scores of other elite schools.

These developments provide support for reformers on the left who believe college admissions tests are biased against minority and low income students or simply a poor predictor of college readiness. And they give heart to reformers on the right who think test scores are being ignored in favor of legally dubious criteria.

While much of the attention is focused on elite institutions, schools like Arizona State, Georgia State and CUNY are making a name for themselves by focusing not on the number of students they exclude but rather on the number they accept and successfully graduate. For these schools, finding innovative ways to identify and admit qualified students is more important than tests that exclude them. Together these developments suggest the college admissions process is under serious strain and my bet is big changes will come sooner rather than later. This is a textbook case of an environment that calls out for innovative thinking and that will lead to both needed reform and unintended consequences.

Standardized testing won’t die easily. It solves a host of problems for the institutions that rely on it. For selective schools, tests are an efficient way of winnowing the applicant pool before applying more subjective admissions criteria like applicant essays and recommendations. For other schools, the tests serve as a minimum threshold below which a student will not be accepted. Such a threshold is also employed by virtually all schools in special cases such as athletes, legacy admissions, and so called “special situations.” Though nothing more than a blunt instrument for performing a rough cut, standardized tests give a veneer of objectivity to what is an inherently subjective process.

That veneer is wearing off quickly. Proceedings in the Harvard case illustrate that, contrary to popular mythology, qualified applicants are admitted based on a host of subjective criteria ranging from personality assessment to parental wealth. All of this is an open secret among those who work in highly selective schools, but no one wants to discuss it.

For less selective schools, tests are used to identify applicants who are likely to complete a course of study and graduate. But in reality, an increasing number of those schools ignore their own standards because they are short of applicants and under financial duress. Much like tuition, test scores are often “discounted” to fill a class.

If standardized tests no longer provide the appearance of objectivity for what is essentially a subjective process and are often ignored in order to fill a class, what will take their place? That is a conversation that needs to begin now. The first step is the hardest. An open and honest discussion must take place, campus by campus, about the admissions process itself and the set of criteria that are actually employed to create an incoming class. This first step is hard because the subject is generally taboo. Like making sausage, no one wants to be lay bare the process because it is ultimately so subjective and is designed to manage a set of competing objectives that are traditionally expressed only in vague terms (no college president wants to admit that a certain number of slots are reserved for the children of wealthy donors, or acknowledge that political and financial pressures are always at play).

Once a clear and honest set of admissions criteria have been established, there’s opportunity for real innovation in the process. How can a school’s admissions process best reflect its values on the one hand and still be executed at a reasonable cost? This one challenge has the potential for encouraging scores of creative responses, all of which are potentially superior to a standardized test. One idea I recently heard was the notion of distance traveled. From where did the student start his journey and where is she today? If past performance is the best indicator of performance in the future, and I think it is, then measuring distance traveled combined with some straightforward competency based tests like those employed in the private sector could be one excellent indicator of likely success in college. I make this suggestion for illustrative purposes only. If the opportunity is presented, enormous creativity can be applied to the college admission process and hundreds of different approaches can be developed.

Of course, any new approach brings both advantages and new problems. Uncoordinated admissions processes will result in a lack of uniformity, forcing students to apply separately to each school instead of filling out a common application. That might not be all bad — the uniform application has had the unintended consequence of encouraging wholesale application to a large number of schools, especially among affluent students who can afford the application fees.

Speaking of affluent students, it seems inevitable that whatever innovative admissions processes are created, there will be an industry of advisors and coaches to help those who can afford it obtain unfair advantage. That is no different than the status quo, but care must be taken to be sure that processes designed to be transparent and fair are not, in reality, even less equitable than the current system.

As this is being written, I know of efforts on the part of The College Board and many educational advocacy groups to begin the conversation about the new college admissions process. At the same time schools that are making standardized tests optional or doing away with them all together are coming up with a replacement. At this point the only thing I am sure of is that reform of the college admissions process will become a big part of the larger task we describe in our new book Our Higher Calling, which is to rebuild the partnership between America and its colleges and universities.

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