Their case is simple: Standardized tests constitute a barrier to higher education and load the admissions dice in favor of those who can afford weeks-long prep courses and expensive tutors. It’s not that these activists are wrong per se. In fact, we have every reason to believe being born into privilege does yield advantages on these tests. To some extent, you can buy your SAT score. But activists’ solution to this rank injustice is to, quite simply, do away with the exams altogether.
However, anyone who actually cares about the stratification of American society must wrestle with the very real, though unintended, consequences of such an idea. Eliminating standardized testing may end one source of inequity, but it leaves an even bigger one in its wake.
For well over a century, the elite colleges of northeastern America were within the grasp of only the most select few. In those times, there were no standardized tests. Each university had its own entrance exam, meaning that only those already living in the area or wealthy enough to travel long distances had even a chance at admission. Consequently, the halls of Brown, the grass of Harvard Yard, indeed the libraries of nearly every elite university were the near-exclusive domain of the children of the wealthy and powerful and the graduates of elite boarding schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Georgetown Preparatory School.
For a poor, young boy in Appalachia, his dream of going to Harvard was about as far-flung as his dream of going to the moon.
Then, in the mid-twentieth century, there began a shift toward meritocracy. This shift significantly accelerated during the Cold War, when colleges began seeking out raw intellectual talent irrespective of social origins to advance American interests in the international scientific community. As the role of colleges in American society changed, so did the composition of their student bodies. Colleges began using the SAT to find talent not only within the gates of exclusive prep schools, but from schools all around the country. To be sure, the progress was slow. But now the boy in Appalachia at least had a shot. If he worked hard in school and studied for the test and scored well enough, his application would be on the admissions committee’s desk right next to the kid from Georgetown. The SAT acted as a great equalizer. The playing field may not have been level, but at least now he was allowed in the game.
For him, standardized tests were a gateway to higher education, not a barrier. Today, these exams continue to provide an opportunity for students to show their stuff. No one is saying they’re perfect. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. But we can’t achieve equity in the admissions process by eliminating that which has made it more equitable to begin with.
Rather than eliminate the tests, why not fix them? If the primary issue is that (putting the Felicity Huffmans of the world aside) a person’s wealth and social background gives them an edge on the exams, why not control for these variables to ensure test-takers are being judged fairly?
Allow me to extend a slightly modified, overused analogy. Consider two runners on a track, one starting ten yards behind the other. The race begins and, unsurprisingly, the disadvantaged runner loses the race. But just barely. Now, the prevailing wisdom is to declare the man who crosses the finish line the winner and lament the race and its unfair origins. Consequently, a chorus of spectators calls for eliminating racing altogether, as a completely ineffective means of determining talent.
But what if we decided we don’t care who won the race per se? What if we decided we only cared about the race insofar as it helped us determine the better runner? In this case, the better runner is, of course, the man who ran an extra five yards in the same amount of time.
So it is with the standardized test problem. If the boy from Appalachia scores a point lower on the SAT than his peer from Phillips Exeter, I haven’t cooked the books in his favor by declaring him the more meritorious. I’ve simply assessed his merit in the best way I know how. I haven’t given anyone an advantage or disadvantage, I’ve simply acknowledged the race is unfair and sought to identify the better runner.
Unfortunately, “need-blind” colleges and universities like Brown have boxed themselves in. Explicitly committing to not consider an applicant’s financial situation may sound all nice and progressive, but what it really means is that we care only about which runner won the race and not where they started. Consequently, when a poor student and a rich one score the same on the SAT, ‘need-blind’ universities lack many of the tools necessary to differentiate between the two.
Recall that the College Board tried to measure students’ socioeconomic backgrounds last year. Some of the data points included the free lunch rate at their school, the crime and poverty rates in the student’s neighborhood, the opportunities they had to take AP classes and educational rigor. This measure, derisively nicknamed an “adversity score” would have provided exactly the kind of tool universities could use to put an applicant’s test score in context. Sadly, the College Board abandoned that plan after heavy criticism of its viability as a reliable metric. Yet even if this specific metric was imperfect, the general concept of a systemic, numerical evaluation of these factors has promise that should not be so swiftly abandoned.
The cliche turns out to be true: Higher education is the gateway to success in America and, increasingly, in the world. Consequently, how we choose who gets to attend which college or university has a profound impact on the life of the person and for the life of society, in general. Everyone has the same goals: fairness, inclusion, accessibility. It may seem wise to eliminate every practice which has even the veneer of inequity — it’s certainly fashionable. But, in the case of standardized tests, the solution cannot be to forsake empirics. To eliminate them is to deny their history and to preserve, if not exacerbate, the segregation of American society along socioeconomic lines.
Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.