Back when many of us were high school seniors (in ancient times), we checked the mailbox every day for college admissions decisions, guessing at the content of envelopes by their thickness. Now, instead, we watch our own children obsessively refresh their email until results are posted electronically. We watch videos of these moments on social media and choke up at their joy when they get into the school of their dreams.
Do you know what we don’t watch on social media? The videos of students who didn’t get in. And while we know that disappointment is inevitable, we don’t spend nearly enough time wondering if that allocation of hope and sorrow is fair.
We in higher education have an enormous amount of power as the gatekeepers of opportunity. We have the power to create true meritocracy in America — a system where talent and hard work, and not the accident of birth, determines opportunities in life. Instead, I fear, we have been complicit in something much different. Driven by rankings pressure and the search for status, we have become reliant on standardized tests to serve as gatekeepers, even though we know they do not play fair.
But colleges and universities have a rare opportunity right now to turn what started as an emergency response to the pandemic into a permanent improvement of the system: We can start ignoring standardized test scores and help a more diverse set of students experience those moments of acceptance joy.
The SAT and ACT created an illusion of objective fairness. By promising to measure capacity to learn, rather than acquired knowledge, and by creating a single metric across the varied meaning of high school grades, admissions testing would allow colleges to truly measure merit.
Predictably, however, students began to improve their score with practice, rather than sheer merit. What started with how-to books has become a multi-billion-dollar industry of test preparation. Those with resources can significantly improve their score over less privileged students with the same aptitude.
The nation shuddered collectively over the admissions bribery scandal in 2019, with the concept that money could actually purchase opportunity for your child laid so bare. Those actions constituted clear violations of moral and legal standards. But they raised, or should have raised, deeper ethical issues, too. Reliance on standardized tests still allows the purchase of opportunity in more subtle ways.
We know from years of data that standardized test results contain growing disparities by class (and the overlapping issue of race). Research has shown that wealthier students score higher on the SAT compared to students from families with lower incomes. In 2014, on average, students from families who earned more than $200,000 a year scored almost 400 points higher on the SAT than students from families who earned under $20,000 a year.
Those tests that were supposed to be the very guardians of our meritocracy now help make it worse. As further evidence of their failings, standardized tests have also been shown to have limited use in predicting who will do best in college. Research shows that grades earned over four years of effort in high school do a better job of predicting success.
Why then do colleges keep using them? In part because college rankings depend so heavily upon scores. And although U.S. News and World Report, which runs the most recognized college ranking, has attempted to diminish that reliance, schools still use their average test scores as a measure of status. It is difficult for any single school to buck that trend on its own without taking a real hit.
Yet, the incredible disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the tests themselves were unavailable for months last year, allowing universities to take a leap together that was too costly to take alone. Now, more than two-thirds of universities (including many of the elites) have declared themselves at least temporarily test-optional. No longer will they require the SAT or ACT for admission.
Is that victory? Not so fast. Schools that allow, but don’t require, SAT/ACT scores are still influenced by testing. They still publish average test scores and submit them for ranking purposes. While test-optional schools do see some increases in applications and acceptances for underrepresented students, students must still guess at whether an application submitted without scores will stand the same chance.
To be completely transparent about what we value, we at Loyola New Orleans have decided to go entirely “test-blind,” meaning that we will no longer consider test scores at all even after the pandemic is over and testing can resume. Following this decision, Loyola New Orleans has received the most applications in university history for the Fall 2021 semester, a 19% increase over last year.
Among those applicants who have been admitted to the university thus far are 35% more first-generation students over last year, 34% more Pell-eligible students, 57% more Black students, 33% more Hispanic students, 17% more Asian students and 22% more students who identify as multiracial.
Instead of test scores, our admissions counselors will focus on those all-important grades, the difficulty of the courses chosen and a holistic review of the talents demonstrated and the obstacles overcome. These factors are best used to identify a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and they help us do a better job of choosing the students who will flourish here, regardless of their ability to afford an expensive ACT course. And as a Jesuit, Catholic institution fueled by mission, that matters enormously to us.
We followed in the footsteps of a handful of other schools and, since then, have been followed by the entire University of California system.
But that’s not enough. Many more schools need to take this bold leap and seize the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to permanently and completely remove test scores from the application process. Any consideration of these flawed measures is too much.
Tania Tetlow, J.D., is the president of Loyola University New Orleans.