The Assessment Controversy

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 01/08/2024

Standardized testing. The bane of college hopefuls and, perhaps surprisingly, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) progressives. 

The SAT and ACT have been the benchmark assessment tools utilized by colleges and universities as an aspect of the admissions process since the early 20th century. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic. These tests were cast to the wayside after the pandemic made it difficult for students to take them and subsequently, many formerly “selective” institutions dropped their standardized test requirements calling the change “temporary.” And to this day, nearly all have kept their test-optional stance in the admissions process. 

But the story behind the war on the SAT goes a bit deeper than the pandemic.

In a fascinating, yet atypical, New York Times article, David Leonhardt explores the war over standardized tests and the myth that such tests harm diversity. Progressives had been attacking standardized tests for years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, often decrying “harm” to minority students and DEI on campus. Though the pandemic finally granted DEI-enthusiasts their “victory for equity”—their victory is on thin ice. As Leonhardt expounds, the failure to reinstate mandatory standardized testing for college admissions is not benefitting anyone, much less the minority groups DEI-progressives meant to “help.” 

Without test scores, admissions officers sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between applicants who are likely to do well at elite colleges and those who are likely to struggle. Researchers who have studied the issue say that test scores can be particularly helpful in identifying lower-income students and underrepresented minorities who will thrive.

There is more nuance to the argument that the SAT and ACT unfairly cater to certain racial and/or affluent groups than what is presented by standardized testing nay-sayers. At face value, it is to dislike a test that seemingly reduces a person’s intelligence to a number. But when used properly in addition to other academic and personality qualifications, it can be an effective tool to predict the level of collegiate success—though remember, it is only a tool, not a flawless metric of assessing academic intelligence. NAS has many criticisms of the College Board, which administers the tests.

Far too often, higher education reacts to the symptom and not the cause. The argument by DEI-supporters that the SAT and ACT are the reasons for lack of racial diversity in higher education fails to take into account that other portions of the admissions process show economic inequalities more so than the tests. Leonhardt explains, “The tests are not entirely objective, of course. Well-off students can pay for test prep classes and can pay to take the tests multiple times. Yet the evidence suggests that these advantages cause a very small part of the gaps.” He continues, “To put it another way, the existence of racial and economic gaps in SAT and ACT scores doesn’t prove that the tests are biased.” We live in an imperfect world and booting the SAT and ACT out the door will not change economic gaps or disparities among college hopefuls. 

There is recent research that indicates that high school grades alone, without taking SAT or ACT scores into consideration, are not the best predictor of college success nor of success post-graduation. Also, the research showed that “Test scores and college grades are strongly related, regardless of students’ high school type.” Shockingly, this conclusion on the data is contrary to the narrative pushed by the anti-standardized test progressives. So why not reinstate standardized testing as an aspect of admissions? The answer, Leonhardt discloses, isn’t surprising at all:

When I have asked university administrators whether they were aware of the research showing the value of test scores, they have generally said they were. But several told me, not for quotation, that they feared the political reaction on their campuses and in the media if they reinstated tests. ‘It’s not politically correct,’ Charles Deacon, the longtime admissions dean at Georgetown University, which does require test scores, has told the journalist Jeffrey Selingo. 

If the concern is truly bringing more diversity to campus, the colleges and universities which have “temporarily” paused their standardized testing requirement can learn much from MIT, which reinstated the testing requirement and brought in the most diverse class in their history. “When you don’t have test scores, the students who suffer most are those with high grades at relatively unknown high schools, the kind that rarely send kids to the Ivy League,” Deming, a Harvard economist, said. “The SAT is their lifeline.”   

There must be some way to measure and assess student readiness for college, which is why standardized tests offer some baseline for such assessment, though imperfect. Perhaps there would be better ways to round out standardized testing—like the addition of a mandatory essay portion to add insight into a student’s ability to understand and apply what is otherwise rote memorization. Standardized tests for college admissions provide students with the opportunity to show some of their academic prowess—not the full picture of their capabilities or merit. Because assessment tools are just that, tools.  

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

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