Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Nivarthy: In Defense of Standardized Testing

Addressing inequities in college admissions will not be accomplished by doing away with standardized testing.

Standardized tests have become a punching bag for those seeking to address the socioeconomic gap in college admissions. Accelerated by the pandemic, the movement to abolish standardized tests like the SAT and ACT as an admissions factor has long been motivated by studies indicating that test scores are positively correlated with affluence and race. While narrowing these gaps are indeed worthy goals, opponents of standardized testing must consider the alternatives. In doing away with testing as an admissions criteria, we not only lose a quantitative, meritocratic tool in measuring aptitude, but we also end up elevating alternative measures that run a much higher risk of favoring the wealthy. Factors contributing to test performance — like test preparation resources, for instance — can be made more accessible, but testing itself remains a tool that rewards effort and achievement.

Scandals of the past decade, like Varsity Blues, have highlighted the alarming advantage held by the rich in getting their children into elite universities. Among many other notable institutions, the University of California system voted in 2020 to permanently eliminate standardized testing by 2025. Motivated by the purported relationships between testing and wealth, cheating and race, UC leaders cited their desire to “level the playing field and provide greater access to a high-quality college degree for students from all backgrounds.”

To what extent does abolishing standardized tests as a component of college admissions level the playing field? While test scores are positively correlated with family income, so-called “holistic” measures — namely, essay quality — are in fact more positively correlated. This relationship makes sense: While testing critics point to expensive coaching and tutoring common among affluent students, the same logic applies — evidently to a greater extent — with application essays. Moreover, essay quality has the potential to be even more correlated with parental education status than test scores, for several reasons including parents being able to  edit their children’s essays.

Other admissions factors that anti-testing advocates argue are a stronger indication of college success, such as high school GPA, are also highly correlated with wealth. Grade inflation has been found to have a greater impact at schools serving wealthier students. Again, this trend is logically quite sound — as hotbeds of students bound for top universities, wealthy “feeder schools” have increasingly tried to improve college admissions odds, in part through rapid grade inflation. 

Primarily, the anti-testing argument rests on the inaccessibility of coaching and tutoring programs, and the best research has focused on as much.

Studies, cited in a discussion paper from the National Association for College Admission Counseling — which take nationally representative samples of American high school students and include analysis of multiple forms of test preparation on both the SAT and ACT — have found everything from a “small positive,” “surprising small negative” and even no effect of coaching on exams (when evaluating the effect on different sections of the two respective tests). Such ambiguous conclusions suggest that the complete abolition of testing in admissions is unwise.

Shrinking the socioeconomic and racial gap in college admissions is a worthy goal. However, such gaps are not inherent features of standardized testing itself; in fact, standardized testing only has the potential to narrow the gap as a meritocratic tool. It is far less tethered to wealth and race than alternative measures. Factors that contribute to the wealth gap in testing cited by anti-testing advocates — like costs of tests themselves, academic support and extra time on exams — can be addressed with tools that do not include the elimination of testing. The factor of extra time, for instance, is one that stands out to me as ludicrous. What explains the correlation between family income and receiving extra time on an exam, and why have critics not looked into this fact more? Cheating, as another factor, can be more seriously addressed by giving testing institutions, such as the College Board and ACT more jurisdiction to administer tests themselves , as opposed to school teachers running these exams.  . Test preparation tools — like practice tests and tutoring — can be further subsidized by testing institutions themselves. 

Under a 2007 policy passed in Michigan requiring public high school juniors to take the ACT, for every 1,000 students, an additional 230 who were previously not even taking the test scored high enough to attend college. A study of the policy noted that among low-income students, even more were enabled to attend college after the required-testing policy —  an additional 480 for every 1,000 low-income students. Such an instance shows that subsidized testing is possible and results in a net positive on outcomes for low-income students. 

Most importantly, it is wrong for testing to be diminished in the name of socioeconomic equity. Given the far more troubling link between essay evaluation and wealth, meritocracy suffers when testing is abolished. Testing at its core is a universal, unbiased and transparent tool, and far more so than any other metric in college admissions — it remains the best way to serve those hoping to climb the ladder.