OPINION: Universities should reconsider value of standardized exams

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Last Thursday, the University of Chicago announced that it would drop the requirement for high school students to submit SAT or ACT scores on their applications. While de-emphasizing standardized test performance has recently become a trend in higher education, this is the first time a top research university has completely waived the exam requirement.

And it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. While tests like the SAT and ACT should theoretically serve as useful points of comparison between different applicants, the reality is that these exams are not reliable indicators of student success — and can even hinder diversity on campus.

Debates over the fairness of these exams are nothing new. In particular, the College Board has long been criticized for including obscure concepts in its SAT — most notably in the vocabulary section. In turn, eager parents began to hire personal tutors to help their children “prepare” — or, in other words, memorize — the test. This was anything but fair for students who could not afford a $2000 tutor to help them with a three-hour test.

As a result, the College Board revamped the format of the SAT in 2016 to include content that was more relevant to what students were learning in school. And for the most part, it did: The reading and writing sections became less memorization-based and more evidence-based, and the dreaded 20-minute essay became optional. The College Board even made official SAT prep free through Khan Academy.

And while these are all respectable decisions, companies like The College Board still make a profit from pushing out annual study guides. Independent test prep businesses still make a profit from telling kids their exam secrets can boost scores by hundreds of points. Indeed, it still rings true that SAT and ACT scores may measure how well a student can take a test, rather than measuring actual ability.

Economic factors aside, standardized tests may hurt racial diversity as well. According to a 2010 study by the Harvard Education Review, the SAT and ACT may contain implicit biases against minorities. Among the study’s most notable findings was that white students and black students of highly similar educational backgrounds had disparate scores on the verbal section, with white test-takers performing significantly better on the “easier” questions. And it makes sense: Some critics attribute this to the fact that tests written in a white-dominated society will contain expressions that white students are likely to have grown up hearing.

On the international scale, the SAT and ACT also pose unnecessary obstacles for students looking to apply to American colleges. On top of having to deal with the already lowered rates of acceptance for international applicants, overseas students had half the opportunities to take the SAT (four) when compared to their U.S. counterparts (eight) in 2017. While this indicates a failure by the College Board to give students equal opportunities to use its services, this shortcoming also points toward a larger trend of prioritizing U.S. students on campuses that claim to champion multicultural diversity.

For these reasons, the University of Chicago’s decision to completely do away with SAT and ACT scores was a smart one. According to The New York Times, the University of Chicago is not as diverse as it seems: Economically, the median family income of a student at the university is $134,500, and 58 percent come from the top 20 percent. Along with waiving the test requirement, the University of Chicago has also attempted to play “diversity catch-up” by offering full-tuition scholarships to families earning less than $125,000, as well as scholarships of $20,000 to all first-generation students.

As USC attempts to shake off its reputation as the “University of Spoiled Children” and become a more inclusive campus, it wouldn’t be outrageous to at least consider the University of Chicago’s application revamp. Not only would eliminating the test requirement be fair to the University’s growing population of minorities and first generation students, but it also wouldn’t make an impact on academic performance: In a 2014 report, the National Association for College Admission Counseling found no difference in college graduation rates for students who did not submit their test scores.

While it may take time for universities to completely eliminate SAT and ACT scores from consideration, the University of Chicago’s unexpected decision points toward a more diverse future on college campuses. Hopefully, this future will come sooner rather than later.