Last month, George Washington University joined a growing list of more than 800 colleges and universities making college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT optional. Instead, they’ll look at a more comprehensive portfolio of student achievement, such as grade point average and extracurricular experience, to judge students’ college readiness. College entrance exams are poor indicators of postsecondary readiness (or predictors of success), which is why more schools should follow in GW’s footsteps. As we move away from these tests, we must also strive to increase access to higher education opportunities for all students regardless of their race, zip code or family income.
During the post-World War era, college entrance exams were established as objective measures to evaluate veterans’ and traditional students’ IQs, without considering test-takers’ previous education or socioeconomic backgrounds. The ACT and SAT were originally adopted to give low-income kids and kids of color the opportunity to show their smarts in ways their high schools might have missed or their military résumés had not captured.
But in less than a century, we have debunked the idea that the ACT or SAT measure intelligence. We have also seen the multibillion-dollar test preparation industry boom, with wealthy, college-driven families having much greater access to the test-taking strategies necessary to earn Ivy-level scores. The ACT and SAT have essentially become better indicators of family wealth than college readiness, closing doors on the very kids they were originally intended to help.
What’s more, we have also debunked the idea that the ACT and SAT can predict if students are ready for college. According to the ACT, test-takers meet college-readiness benchmarks by achieving certain cut scores. The ACT’s definition of “college-readiness,” however, predicts students who pass a certain subject area have a 25 percent chance of getting below a C on the first year of the corresponding college course. In other words, 25 percent of those who pass the ACT are not ready for college. With Minnesota’s remediation rate hovering above 20 percent, a Minnesota high school diploma is a better indicator of college readiness than the ACT.
The low correlation between college readiness exams and actual college readiness runs universal. In one of the most comprehensive independent studies on the issue, researchers looked at college graduation rates and GPAs of students who submitted ACT/SAT scores and students at the same schools who chose not to submit their scores. They found that the graduation rates and GPAs of “submitters” were nearly identical to “non-submitters,” and that high school GPAs, not the ACT/SAT, are better indicators of college success.
Even when historically underserved kids do perform well on tests like the ACT and SAT, they still struggle accessing higher education. In fact, according to The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson, low-income students with the same grades and test scores of high-income students are nearly 75 percent less likely to apply to selective colleges. In other words, if the tests don’t prevent certain students from pursuing higher education, other barriers—like the lack of vital information, financial assistance, college guidance and a strong K-12 foundation—will.
Despite their initial purpose, the ACT and SAT have become barriers between students and college, especially for kids of color. According to the ACT’s National Readiness Report, only 5 percent of Black and 14 percent of Latino test-takers were able to meet the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks. Likewise, the SAT has deemed only 16 percent of Black and 24 percent of Latino test-takers college-ready. This means we’re essentially telling an overwhelming majority of Black and Latino students that they are not “college material,” based on college entrance exams that are not great indicators of college readiness.
The local debate around making college entrance exams, namely the ACT, universally available to all Minnesota students misses the point. Instead, we must have more thoughtful conversations on how to improve access to college especially for low-income kids and kids of color, and consider how college entrance exams themselves are pointless barriers to higher education for too many. Simply put, these tests neither prove college readiness nor improve the diversity of our postsecondary institutions.
As more colleges and universities move away from college entrance exams, we have a real opportunity to engage in critical conversations about college access. Instead of asking, “How can we help more kids take and game an unfair, unhelpful and inaccurate test?” We should instead be asking, “How can we create fair and easily accessible paths to college for all?”
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