The Principle’s Office: University admissions ought to unstandardize standardized testing

This is a graphic design of the word “opinion” in a speech bubble. The background is purple and there are various shapes surrounding the speech bubble.

Welcome to The Principle’s Office! As a philosophy, politics and law major with a particular interest in philosophy, I often wonder what abstract ideas are woven into the fabric of many hot-button topics. What principles underlie these issues, if any? What ought they be? What are the nature of these things? Why is this that and why isn’t that this? 

These are the questions that I seek to explore with this column and hope you might come to enjoy. So without further ado and in the spirit of these concepts, I believe the ACT to be a big billowing bowl of bullshit, and I am happy that the UC system has decided to stop mandating standardized test scores in their admissions process. 

From a bird’s eye view, it is clear that the skills needed to succeed on this exam are not analogous to much else. On average, one’s ACT score is evidenced to likely increase as one repeatedly takes the test. Students often submit only their best test scores and can repeatedly take the test over whatever increment of time they deem necessary. 

Though I have received extensions and make-ups in my academic career, I cannot say that I have been in a situation that allowed me to retake an exam as many times as I needed nor have I been afforded the opportunity to exclusively focus on succeeding at an exam for as long as I felt necessary. Without examining the test closely, it is already clear that this kind of idiosyncratic exam measures one’s abilities in a very narrow range of situations, so narrow that they are not even mimicked in most other spheres of academia, let alone the world at large. 

My personal experience with the exam was overall negative. As a Canadian first-generation college student, I was completely unfamiliar with how to go about succeeding on the ACT, and I was under no pressure from my family to take the test seriously. In fact, my family members would consistently refer to the exam as my “CAT.” 

I was 17 years old, an accomplished high school debater, a member of Model United Nations, co-student body president and a longstanding member of the academic honor roll at my school. My track record reflected my scholastic strategy; I had seized every academic opportunity and I had reached tirelessly for mastery in my fields of study. I dreamed of boarding the SS ScholarShip, and I wanted to ride it all the way to a profession. 

Realizing that all my friends had taken the ACT multiple times and paid thousands of dollars for prep courses before I even knew what the acronym stood for made me feel like my dream boat had sailed off. At that point, none of the skills I had honed in on during my high school career would help me conquer the ACT, despite having helped me conquer all past academia-related challenges. It was as though everyone else’s parents had bought them tickets, packed their bags and organized the itineraries for their trip on the now-tired SS ScholarShip metaphor. If I wanted to catch up, I would have to dive into the ocean and swim up to the boat myself. 

In the eleventh hour, during the height of my senior-year stress, I ended up taking the only ACT that could be completed prior to most university application deadlines and sent my score in blind. The sinking feeling of isolation and powerlessness prompted by standardized testing is familiar to many ambitious and well-accomplished first-generation college students. It was sobering to realize that because of my failure to be entirely self-sufficient and independently proactive about standardized testing at 17 years old, I would not be able to achieve my lifelong and life-changing university dreams. 

Many of my non-first-generation peers, on the other hand, did not have to be burdened with mapping out this complex ACT maze on their own, nor did they have to independently motivate themselves to succeed. For the most part, their parents signed them up for multiple test dates a full year in advance, enrolled them in fancy preparatory programs and consistently reminded them how important standardized tests were. 

Explicit and particular knowledge on how to do well on a specific standardized exam, access to special test resources and pressure to succeed were all things I was comparatively lacking as a first-generation college student. All this to say, one’s ACT score, and subsequently one’s academic future, is largely contingent on the nature of the family one is born into despite the ability of a 17-year-old teenager to reach into themselves and pull out intense amounts of discipline, costly resources and a very specific wherewithal. 

There is clear systemic oppression at work, and that is the very problem with using the exam as a tool to decide who gets a quality education. The nature of intelligence and the ability to succeed is so elusive that no one measure has the monopoly on the proper metric for either. For instance, we can easily find swaths of successful high-school dropouts, and we can also find herds of unemployed university graduates. The operationalization of the variable that is success is clearly not as simple as doing one single thing really well, let alone an exam. 

It is time for institutions of higher learning to stop reducing students to some arbitrary purported metric of, according to ACT’s website, students’ “ability to complete college-level work” and “general educational development” and actually do their job, think critically and look at predictors and assessments of success in a more holistic and accurate way. By continuing to use standardized tests as a significant factor in college admissions, universities are producing a system that most heavily rewards, at worst, the birth lottery or at best, a very specific kind of skill, that of taking the ACT or SAT, that is frankly so stupid. 

Julia Leb is a junior writing about philosophy, politics and social issues. Her column, “The Principle’s Office,” runs every other Friday.