OPINION: The Role of Standardized Testing in College Admissions

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On Oct. 12, I sat at a folding table with three sharpened #2 pencils, a calculator and multiple pieces of paper. I took the PSAT/NMSQT, or the Preliminary SAT, which the National Merit Scholarship Corporation cosponsors. I answered 139 questions to determine if I was eligible and qualified for the National Merit Scholarship Program. After two hours and 45 minutes, I didn’t want to see a bubble answer sheet ever again, and I began to question the value of it.

In 1926, the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was administered by the College Board after they were inspired by standardized tests used in the U.S. Army. For the next 80 years, they continued to modernize the test and expand its usage nationwide, along with other standardized tests. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed to better focus on the goal of preparing all students for success in college and their careers. While this act still required state testing, it had less strict requirements for teachers compared to previous education acts passed.

In 2021, a documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” was released on the fraudulent methods that were used to get children of wealthy and famous families into universities. The underlying message of this documentary was to emphasize the connection between wealth and education, including wealth’s correlation to SAT scores. This documentary compelled me to dive further into the pros and cons of standardized testing.

As mentioned in an article from ProCon.org, an unbiased website run by Encyclopedia Britannica, standardized tests can show gaps in scores that can be used to help students in marginalized groups. These scores can help improve instruction given to students with disabilities, English learners, low-income students and other groups. Without data showing a problem in the system, it can’t be addressed.

The con of that, though, is that the tests can be racist, classist and sexist. The original army tests were created by psychologist Carl Brigham to segregate soldiers by race, as scientists back then believed race and intelligence were connected. While those thoughts about intelligence have been debunked, there is still racial bias seen in standardized tests.

According to Young Whan Choi, an educator, author and podcast host, “Too often, test designers rely on questions which assume background knowledge more often held by White, middle-class students. It’s not just that the designers have unconscious racial bias; the standardized testing industry depends on these kinds of biased questions in order to create a wide range of scores.” Since students don’t have an equal amount of information, giving the same test to different students doesn’t accurately reflect how vast their knowledge is. If I were to take a test on computer programming, a subject I know little to nothing about, I certainly wouldn’t perform at the same level as someone else who takes after-school coding classes. He also adds, “If Black and Latinx students started to perform as well as their White and East Asian peers on these tests, then the tests would be meaningless to colleges.” This quote shows the racism in the system, questioning the point of it entirely. Why are we taking tests that would be meaningless if everyone had a fair chance at them?

More colleges are becoming test-optional, but as a Running Start student hoping to transfer to a four-year college, I still feel the pressure to take the PSAT, SAT and ACT. I’m privileged to be a White, upper-middle-class student who could have the opportunity to do prep for the tests, but I recognize it’s not like that for a lot of people. That is where the system needs to change. Whether or not a student can go to a college shouldn’t rely so much on a biased test. While most colleges are still requiring standardized tests, others are focusing more on transcripts, extracurriculars and letters of recommendation. When the time comes for me to transfer, I hope my academic and extracurricular achievements will be what gets me into a college, not an outdated standardized test.