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For College Admissions, Bring Back the SAT and ACT

Another year of college admissions, and yet more colleges have dropped the SAT and ACT from their criteria for admissions. I’d argue they should rethink that decision and work to improve those tests rather than to replace them, in doing so standing up for the value of hard student “data” as a component of admissions criteria, including its inevitable imperfections.

Colleges continue to ditch the standardized tests as criteria for admissions under a deluge of pressure related to a variety of criticisms – among them that the tests do not sufficiently evaluate the kinds of reading and mathematical knowledge students will have to know in college, that test scores skew higher for wealthier students with more resources to prepare, and that lurking biases in the way the tests are written may inadvertently cause scores to skew higher for certain racial or ethnic groups.

All are valid criticisms to at least explore and try to correct if they represent real flaws. The tests should be continually refined to more appropriately test the right kinds of knowledge, mitigate the ability for families to game the system through them, and to be written in ways that offer an equitable chance at testing success.

Unfortunately, without the SAT and ACT, colleges are left with fewer “hard” touch points against which to compare students. Grades vary far more wildly between schools and conceal even more biases than standardized tests. More qualitative evaluation criteria, such as resumes of extracurricular activities, profundity of student essays, and portfolio-based demonstrations of student passions, are interesting and well-serving – any college should prioritize students that display passion, commitment, and a zeal for learning – but they are not stand-ins for measures of “raw ability”.

But therein lies the concerning point. Many who are shunning the SAT and ACT are gleeful that it makes the job of admissions officers harder and that it reduces the quantitative touchstones against which admissions officers can compare students. To these individuals, the reason that the SAT and ACT are bad is not merely because of their embedded imperfections, but rather because they are efforts to quantitatively evaluate and compare students at all.

This sentiment reflects a concerning consensus emerging among the younger generation. It asserts that because people are complex beings, and that because any effort to “measure” them in any aspect of their lives will invariably miss certain other important aspects of their being, that all efforts to measure people should be shunned as a component of qualifications.

This sentiment is an attack on hard data with deeper and more concerning philosophical underpinnings. Data in fact do measure things of importance, and actual qualifications really do matter. Asserting that no data should be used because some data is imperfect is a failure of logic.

The reasons given for the elimination of SAT and ACT scores should also eliminate grades from the equation. Resumes of activities can also be gamed and do not necessarily account for the embedded difficulties some may have accessing activities. Essays imperfectly conflate writing skills sometimes as a stand-in for student passion. And so it would go for any other way colleges seek to evaluate students. Eliminating the SAT and ACT from their criteria, to this point, is merely an effort at appeasing the critics, but it will not end the criticism.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the reasons given for the elimination of the SAT and ACT would inevitably result in the loss of quantitative – and ultimately all – criteria for admissions generally. The inevitable result would be something akin to a universal or “randomized” admissions policy, even for Harvard. It may be what’s coming, and it’s a disservice to applicants. Having no standards is not an answer. While universities have some obligation to be conciliatory to the challenges applicants may face that hold back their cultivation of skills and abilities through high school, writing off the achievements of the first 18 years of a person’s life as meaningless is an insult to those students and practically has no end game: should employers also be required to then have no standards for hiring?

The premise that systemic or conditional differences account for the majority of differences in quantitative qualifications is wrong on its face anyway. This notion that all differences in outcome relate only to systemic biases or random chance is a widely held belief in today’s society. But the sentiment conflates the reality that everyone is equal in their worth as a human being with the falsehood that everyone is equal in abilities, skills, knowledge, and aptitude. That everyone would see equal outcome if only society were better organized is an impossible notion. It discounts the importance of personal choices, abilities, skills, knowledge, and aptitude, without the value of which we’d scarcely have a society, much less such a prosperous one. Prosperity doesn’t come from nothing.

The reason this is concerning for college admissions is that at the end of the day college actually does have to prepare people for something. They’re not just country clubs for drinking and debauchery. Prosperity doesn’t happen accidentally. Industry requires ingenuity, invention requires knowledge, achievement in society requires abilities. Not everything is an abstract game, particularly not when the task incumbent upon the next generation is sustaining the living standards borne from the greatest and most complex economy in the history of the world. Those living standards, our high median incomes, our pace of innovation, and our unmatched civil order don’t come about by chance. The reason universities have standards in the first place is the belief that admitting the most qualified students is key to preparing them through the best education to participate in this amazing project of sustaining our miraculous society. At the end of the day, there has to be some “meat on the bones” to university education. The abilities, skills, knowledge, and aptitude of the admits matters, as does the education itself. If the ultimate belief of the SAT critics is that the qualifications of applicants no longer matter as part of that equation, they should be honest that that is their sentiment. I doubt it would be widely shared.

Ask a young person today about test scores and averages by school, you’re likely to get a hostile answer. “Test scores don’t measure anything useful” will likely be part of the response. “Everyone is different, so there is no ‘average’” is another. Few will acknowledge even the mere factual shortcomings of the second answer.

The rejection of quantitative criteria reflect a broader self-doubt in the cause and effect relationships that drive our society. But make no mistake: we aren’t collectively successful merely because “everyone is different”. People were just and diverse and varied in many societies far less prosperous than ours. Rather, we’re successful because so many people put forth their talent, energy, drive, and resources to offering each other useful goods and services. College admissions criteria should, at least mostly, be a microcosm of the things that make our society successful, and these are primarily tied to the drivers of our broad-based economic prosperity.

This rejection of quantitative criteria also reflects an insecurity that people’s complex egos and imaginations can be accurately, or even adequately, captured through quantitative data. There is not a person in the country who thinks their test scores are higher than their aggregate worth as a person – how many times have you hear the phrase “I’m smart, but I’m not a good test taker”? This preference toward valuing the whole human and celebrating our differences is completely spot-on. But the quantitative outcomes actually do matter. Few of us would trade the $70,000 median incomes of our society for the $400 median incomes of the 14th century. And few of us would trade the average lifespans of 80 or so years today for the lifespans or 30 to 40 years of yesteryear. Those outcomes have been driven by high-achievers and will be much more possible to replicate or duplicate in the future by large collections of researchers who had high, rather than low, standardized test scores.

Ultimately, the question regarding quantitative criteria is most compelling if flipped on its head. Why do students actually even care whether universities use test scores to evaluate them? Because they care if they get in. At the end of the day, few applicants would trade the value of Harvard on the resume for that of a smaller and less illustrious school in the US News and World Report rankings. For them, the many “hard” differences between the two matter. Why shouldn’t “hard” differences matter for Harvard as well when evaluating the students in turn?

That last point is where we need to stop and question the motives for this whole movement. Is this really an authentic movement to improve the criteria for admissions? Or is it merely driven by the sentiment that many don’t feel their test scores aren’t up to par with how great they are as a person? We all share that sentiment. Unfortunately, eliminating the SAT won’t get more students admission into the top schools, at least until the grow their freshman class. No matter how great they are as people. In fact, in recent times, it has only encouraged more to apply, lowering admissions rates further still.

This effort to make the criteria “fluffier”, thus boosting the esteem of students who think that “who they are” will better boost their chances as compared to their test scores is compelling to many. Unfortunately, until the admissions rates increase, all it does is give more students a falsely tantalizing illusion of an easier path to getting in.


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