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Ed. Magazine

Is the SAT Still Needed?

We look at the yeas and nays for keeping — or dropping — the test that’s been called the great leveler and the enemy of equity
Illustration by Dana Smith
Illustration: Dana Smith

Sam Noel, a senior at Melrose High School in Massachusetts, didn’t sleep well the night before his SAT last spring. “I was nervous,” he says, not just about taking the college entrance exam but also about making it to the test center on time. When he searched online for a spot to take the test at his high school, or at any of the high schools in neighboring cities, the closest one he found was a 45-minute drive away.

Difficulty accessing test centers, a problem that reached its peak during the pandemic, is just one of the reasons colleges and universities have adopted test-optional admission policies. Another, and perhaps bigger reason, is the belief that making submissions of SAT or ACT scores optional is fairer and more equitable for students that come from less-advantaged backgrounds. Data shows that students from high-income families on average score higher than those who come from lower-income families. Recent research from Opportunity Insights, a team of Harvard-based researchers and policy analysts, which set out to examine if highly selective colleges perpetuate privilege across generations, reveals how wide the score gap is. 

“One-third of the children of the very richest families scored a 1300 or higher on the SAT, while less than 5% of middle-class students did,” out of a possible 1600, according to the study. “Relatively few children in the poorest families scored that high; just one in ­five took the test at all,” The New York Times reported, citing the study. 

This is where it gets complicated. 

Some researchers say that, despite that sobering data, dismissing the SAT and tests like it is shortsighted. Harvard Professor Raj Chetty, part of the Opportunity Insights team, told The New York Times the disparities in SAT scores by class and race are a “symptom, not a cause,” of educational inequality in the United States. Moreover, researchers like Chetty say SAT scores can do a good job of identifying students who are better prepared to complete the rigorous course work of Ivy Plus institutions — the eight ivy league schools, plus others like MIT and Duke. This is true regardless of the income level of students’ families, Chetty says. This is, in part, the reason schools like Harvard, Brown, Yale, and Dartmouth College are returning to requiring standardized tests for undergraduate admissions. Dartmouth did its own study on the role of testing in its admissions process and concluded that, as its website reads, “a standardized testing requirement will improve — not detract from — our ability to bring the most promising and diverse students to our campus.”

Yet many people, including college admissions officers and high school counselors, say the benefi­ts of making test scores optional in college admissions are too great to ignore. They feel that college admissions should be based on other aspects of a student’s application — the transcript, essay, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities. Today, more than 80% of colleges do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores as part of their college applications, according to Inside Higher Ed

And, so, the question being asked is, is the SAT still needed?


Students’ scores from the SAT, ACT, and standardized tests like them are “just not the main thing a lot of colleges are paying attention to,” says Jamiere Abney, Ed.M.’17, director of admissions at Western Oregon University. He feels that concerns about grade inflation are overblown and that a student’s transcript, GPA, essay, and letters of recommendations do a better job of helping admissions officers understand who the student is and what their potential for success is. Taken together, these components of a student’s record “give us a three- to four-year story of who you are academically and intellectually, not just at one moment in time,” Abney says.

If a student sees a test requirement or if they see that their score falls below the average scores of students attending that school, they may wonder, “is this a school that I can even have a chance at?” says Abney, who favors his school’s test-optional policy because it “gives students one less thing to worry about.” Encouraging lower-income students to apply is important, he says, because earning a college degree is still one of the surest paths to upward social mobility. Forty-seven percent of students at Western Oregon, the oldest public university in the state, are first-generation college students; some of them might have opted out of applying to college if it weren’t for its test-optional policy. “If testing is what’s turning people away, then we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it really worth it?’” 

In general, Clara Yom, Ed.M.’15, a high school counselor in Chicago, advises her students not to submit scores if that’s an option. “I usually tell them there should be a good reason you’re sending your SAT scores in with your application.” It’s rare for her to see an SAT score above 1200 and those scores just don’t reflect her students’ potential, she says. 

Between 75% and 80% of the students at the high school where Yom works now are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch, and a large percentage of students identify as Black and Latino. The vast majority of students at her school aspire to go to college. “Personally, I think it’s impossible to get an SAT score above 1200 without ‘studying’ the SAT,” she says. “It’s not like you get straight A’s in your high school classes and you take AP English and then you’re guaranteed a high score on the SAT.” Rather, it’s about learning how to take the test well and that often depends on having parents who can pay for tutoring. Before becoming a high school counselor, Yom worked as an SAT tutor. Most of the students she tutored came from affluent families and were able to raise their scores 200 to 300 points after weeks of drills.

Others who welcome test-optional policies do so because it represents a shift away from what they feel is an overemphasis on personal achievement. It says, “loud and clear, that who you are as a person and the choices you have made are more important than one test,” says Brennan Barnard, the college admissions program adviser for Making Caring Common, an Ed School project that seeks to help schools develop empathy in students. Colleges and universities should be looking at alternative ways to assess students’ readiness for college, says Barnard, who is also director of college counseling at the Khan Lab School, a mastery-based school in California, and author of The Truth About College Admission. “If a student shows they can master calculus and tutor other students, doesn’t that say a lot more about who they are as a student and their potential to be successful than a test score?” he says. 

But proponents of standardized testing say eliminating the SAT­ and ACT­, at least for admissions to Ivy Plus schools, would be a mistake because research shows that the tests uncover students who are more academically prepared for rigorous coursework, including those who come from less-advantaged backgrounds. 

“The SAT ­is a real lifeline for people who don’t go to elite high schools,” and who wouldn’t get noticed by admissions officers without those scores, says David Deming, a professor at the Ed School and the Harvard Kennedy School, as well as one of the authors of the Opportunity Insights study. This matters because attending an Ivy Plus school can have a significant impact on a student’s social mobility. “Attending an Ivy Plus instead of a flagship public college,” notes the study, “triples students’ chances of obtaining jobs at prestigious firms and substantially increases their chances of earning in the top 1%.” 

However, the researchers also found that Ivy Plus institutions currently rely “too much” on non-academic attributes of a student’s application in their admissions practices and “are more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family as compared to a low- or middle-income family with comparable SAT­/ACT scores” because of their preferences for legacy applicants as well as for applicants with impressive extracurricular and athletic resumes. If these schools changed their admissions policies, the researchers say (to rely more heavily on SAT ­and ACT scores), then “Ivy Plus colleges could significantly diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s highest earners and leaders.” 

As Deming says, “No one is suggesting only the highest-scoring students be admitted to Ivy League colleges,” as diversity also needs to be a priority. But that goal can sit alongside another priority, he says, which is to admit students who are ready to succeed and who can benefit the most from a challenging academic environment. To get there, Deming supports a system that includes the SAT ­in student assessment but that also makes some allowances for students who come from lower-income families and are first-generation college students. “I think we do have that system in a lot of ways,” he says. “Colleges do tend to put a thumb on the scale positively for low-income students who do well on the SAT. That’s just empirically true.” 

The SAT is not perfect, says Deming, who believes test-taking practices that give the advantage to higher-income families should be eliminated. For example, he disagrees with “superscoring,” a practice which allows students who can afford to take the SAT or ACT multiple times to submit their highest scores without colleges knowing the number of times they took the test. But he maintains that “we should have some close-to-universally accepted standard of judging whether somebody is prepared to do rigorous college level work.” 

And that works best when everybody takes the test, according to Professor Andrew Ho, president of the National Council on Measurement in Education. He’s a proponent of requiring the tests in college applications, but only if everyone were required to take it. He points out that in states that require public high school students to take the SAT or ACT to graduate, the pool of college applicants is more balanced demographically. The problem when the test is not required is that some students talk themselves out of taking the test and potentially out of the running for some schools and “the people who have the money and the time … get over-represented in the population” of college applicants, he says. 

In 2007, Michigan began requiring its public high school students to take the ACT during their junior year, which the state offers for free during the school day. (Eleventh-graders in Michigan are now required to take the SAT. They are one of nearly a dozen states that have made the test mandatory.) As a result, the state saw small increases in college attendance, particularly among disadvantaged students. By mandating the test, wrote Professor Susan Dynarski in The New York Times in 2017, a significant number of low-income students who scored high enough to attend a selective college were discovered. “For every 1,000 students who scored well on the optional test, an additional 480 did so on the mandatory test,” she wrote.


As educators, researchers, parents, and students consider the question about whether the SAT is still needed, Ho says it’s important to remember that test scores are just one part of a five-legged stool that college admissions officers draw upon to make their decisions and believing the other legs of the stool — the personal essay, recommendation letters, student records, and extracurriculars — are fairer is wrong because there is more and more evidence that the wealthy have an advantage in those other areas. These advantages reflect deep-seated educational inequalities that begin to take hold long before a student takes the SAT, “including differences in school quality, neighborhood exposure, and many other environmental conditions,” according to Opportunity Insights. As Ho says, “Disparities in test scores reveal deep inequalities in educational opportunity, but removing the test does not remove the disparity.” 

Regardless of whether SAT and ACT are required as part of undergraduate college admissions, the educational inequality the test reveals is something we want to fix, says Deming. And how to do that comes down to an established formula, which, he says, includes more resources, more time in school, early childhood education, smaller classes, highly qualified teachers, attention to the core curriculum, and not letting students fall behind, which requires testing. “We can’t fix a problem unless we can diagnose it,” says Deming. He would also like to see more testing to identify learning gaps at the state, district, school, and even grade and classroom level. 

Part of the solution starts with changing how the public thinks about testing, says Ho. Tests like the SAT can be a tool for educational equity if we can break three fallacies, he says: “that test scores are more meaningful, more precise, and more permanent than they are.” Getting a low score doesn’t mean you can’t learn and thinking it does is damaging. Ho believes that educators are getting better about talking about how to interpret test scores in terms of asset frames versus deficit frames. In other words, “it’s not what you lack; it’s what you have and what you can do if we help. It takes good teachers, good educational systems, to remind people of this.” 

Melrose student Sam Noel made it to his test on time and was relieved when it was over, he says. It turned out that none of the schools he applied to required him to submit his scores and he was happy to have the option to share his scores only with the schools where he thought they’d make a difference in his application. 

Elizabeth Christopher is a writer based in Massachusetts. Her last story in Ed. focused on community college transfer challenges

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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