The Bar-On Brief: Standardized testing is an effective tool — when it is actually standardized

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

This month, USC was rocked by scandal once again. Once dubbed the “University of Spoiled Children,” the school is now being ridiculed as the “University of Scandal and Corruption.” So-called experts across the country are jumping in with ideas on how to prevent such scandals from continuing. Some of these “experts” have raised — or rather, re-raised — the question of whether standardized tests are necessary and whether they create inequity for those who do not have equal access to study materials. FairTest, a group that advocates for test-optional admissions systems, said this latest scandal “may be the final straw that tips the balance” for more schools to adopt test-optional admissions policies. 

But leveraging the admissions scandal to support test-optional admissions is flawed logic. Rather than explaining why standardized testing is obsolete and painting an inaccurate picture of whether students are prepared for college, the recent scandals demonstrate the exact opposite: We need tests. But just like FairTest’s name states, we need to make them fair. In other words, standardized tests have to be standardized. And right now, they aren’t. 

The Department of Justice in 2011 uncovered a number of wealthy students attempting to hire people to take the tests for them. For all those who got caught, there are likely hundreds who didn’t. The most recent scandal involved parents bribing SAT proctors to change answer sheets or take tests in place of students.

I’m not arguing that low-income students can afford the same tutors, resources and have the time to study for these exams as wealthier students. There is no denying that students who come from financially secure families do not have to work parttime,  watch over younger siblings or care for elderly family members like many students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

But think of the alternative to test-optional admissions programs. Calling for schools not to consider standardized testing for college admissions would be a mistake. In fact, it would make the situation worse for students who attend less affluent high schools, where grade inflation is lower than at private schools. A Fordham University study found that the median high school GPA rose 0.27 points in affluent schools but just 0.17 points in less affluent ones between the 2004–05 and 2015–16 school years. 

So imagine the following scenario: There are two students, one from a wealthy background and one from a poor family. The wealthy student goes to an elite, private high school that charges tens of thousands of dollars in tuition per year. The low-income student goes to public school in a poor neighborhood. Let’s also assume that this particular student is far more prepared for college-level classes and rigor compared to her wealthy counterpart. She finishes with straight A’s and aces her SAT. The wealthy student also finishes with straight A’s from a grade-inflated private school but doesn’t do too well in the SAT. 

If colleges did not demand SAT scores, both these students would appear similarly academically qualified. A standardized test, however, would distinguish one over the other, assuming it really is a “standardized” test. The problem arises when the wealthy student is awarded test-taking benefits that other students are not. With benefits like extra time, taking the exam in a private room or having someone else take the exam, the test is no longer standardized. 

This is not to say that students with learning difficulties should be denied conditions that make their test-taking experience fair. But allowing a student who does not have a learning difficulty these same conditions would be unfair, and according to The New York Times, it just so happens that some communities have well-known psychologists who will provide paperwork attesting to disabilities — for thousands of dollars. At some elite high schools, over 46 percent of the student body has been diagnosed with learning disabilities — allowing them to spend up to twice the amount of time most students are allocated on the SAT. Nationally, only 13 percent of students have learning disabilities. ABC News reported that a California psychologist admitted that he diagnoses a learning disability in nearly 90 percent of the cases he evaluates. He also charges over $1,500 for an evaluation and has a special “fly-in” service for national exposure. 

The College Board released a 2016 report in which it found that the better students performed on the exam, the higher their first-year college GPAs were. There appears to be a correlation between course grades in particular classes and students’ corresponding SAT section results.

The test, of course, isn’t perfect. But the problem isn’t the test itself; it’s the fact that it is not being administered fairly, and it is helping a certain class of students overwhelmingly more than others. The recent federal indictments are a handful of specific cases that represent a problem much larger than any individual case and a system of corruption that has faced little accountability. It’s about time we hold those rigging the system accountable. When cheaters get caught, is our response to blame the test or to blame the cheaters? Certainly it should be the cheaters. 

Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.