by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury
1080. That’s what I tallied on the SATs more than 40 years ago while attending my college prep high school in Washington, D.C.
Surprisingly, I did better on the math portion, getting 600, but I earned just 480 on the English section. My coursework had revealed the exact opposite: I struggled in algebra and calculus, yet I aced literature and composition assignments with ease.
This stroll down test-taking lane – “bring at least two No. 2 pencils and get a good night’s sleep beforehand” – comes courtesy of a recent article in the Virginia Mercury by my colleague Nathaniel Cline.
He reported that dozens of colleges in the state, including the University of Virginia, Norfolk State and Virginia Tech, have relaxed admissions exam requirements. More than 1,800 accredited four-year colleges and universities nationwide will offer ACT/SAT-optional or test-free policies for fall 2023 applicants.
The shift will draw even more scrutiny to the lucrative testing juggernaut that has ruled the college admissions process for decades and struck so much fear, second-guessing and nausea in high school juniors and seniors. The standardized exams – I took both in high school – didn’t freak me out, though they wreaked havoc with some of my friends.
A James Madison University admissions official told Cline that instead of standardized test scores, grades in core courses were more relevant for identifying potential academic success. De-emphasizing the tests will force colleges to look more closely at a student’s entire body of work in high school, including class selection and grades, extracurriculars and community service.
That’s a worthwhile switch.
“We’ve had an increase in the underrepresented populations,” including low-income and Pell Grant-eligible students, Donna Harper, vice president of access and enrollment management at JMU, told me Wednesday. “The biggest thing for us was attempting to provide better access.”
It might be tougher for higher ed to discern who to admit, but in the long run the change to optional testing is better for both students and colleges. The former won’t be rejected so easily. The latter, by doing the hard work at the start, will probably gain a better indication of who will fare well.
The not-for-profit College Board, which has reported more than $1 billion annually in revenue, produces the test. I doubt the board or the $1 billion-plus industry of testing prep will go quietly, though. There’s just too much cash involved.
The board, by the way, also produces Advanced Placement tests. So it’s still trying to safeguard a chunk of the revenue stream.
The SATs started in 1926 as a college admissions test for a few thousand applicants. The exam has led to controversy, criticism and plenty of study in the nearly 100 years since it began.
Even the name’s been contentious: It originally was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and the idea it was a test of intelligence backed a theory “there was a strong connection between intelligence and race,” as one test history noted. Name changes have continued. A required essay section started in 2005 but later became optional.
Racial gaps in the scores have persisted over time, and critics have said the test is culturally biased. The test scores are a key indicator, as The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education previously noted, of the disparities in school districts that predominantly Black and brown students usually attend and those attended by white and Asian students.
“Public schools in many neighborhoods with large black populations are underfunded, inadequately staffed, and ill equipped to provide the same quality of secondary education that is offered in predominantly white suburban school districts,” the journal said in 2005.
Thus, test scores were more a result of the everyday school challenges certain students faced than of any innate ability.
There’s also the disposable income families need to take test prep classes. Obviously, the higher the income, the more likely parents can afford to enroll their children in courses or one-on-one tutoring. Test prep can cost thousands of dollars, news articles note.
The tests themselves have fees, too, though students might be eligible for waivers. The SAT costs $60 this year, for example.
My wife and I, first-generation college students in our families, knew it was important for our three children to do well on the SATs. Because we could pay, we had each take the test several times, beginning in middle school.
(I vividly remember leaving Roger Jr. at the testing site when he was in the seventh grade, and how the other students dwarfed him in size. One curious guy asked how old he was.)
A study released last year found that at 100 private colleges, test-optional policies were connected with a 3 to 4% increase in admissions of Pell Grant recipients and a 10 to 12% increase in first-time Black, Latinx and Native American students.
Imagine what juniors and seniors could do by not having to focus on the SATs. They could use that time on current classes. Or completing community service. Maybe there’s an extracurricular they could fit in.
Parents, meanwhile, could keep a little more money in their pockets.
All of those are good reasons to ditch the SATs. Sorry, College Board.
This story was written by Roger Chesley, a contributor to the Virginia Mercury, where this story first appeared.
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