The Historic Fairness of Standardized Admissions Tests

The SATs and ACT’s are particularly high-profile right now, in largest part because of ridiculously rich parents spending ridiculous amounts of money to feloniously insinuate their children into elite and not-so-elite universities and colleges.  Beyond accelerating perpetual arguments about the fundamental fairness of higher education admissions, the scandal also has provoked crisper conversation about the fairness of the tests themselves.  Further mixing things up have been news accounts about how various colleges and universities around the country have decided not to use either of the two tests at all.

The aim of SATs and ACTs is gauging academic preparation and readiness for college work.  If universities opt not to use them, that’s their choice.  If they believe such a policy works for them, so be it and good luck.  But given that a “C” in thousands of high schools is the equivalent of an “A” in thousands of other high schools, and vice versa, I often wonder how institutions make adequately informed decisions in many instances without the additional information provided by standardized tests – especially since they’re more predictive of college performance than critics routinely contend.  Selfishly, I’m just grateful that I never have to take another standardized test for as long as I live unless, for some unanticipated reason, I choose to.

In considering the fairness of SAT’s and ACTs, focus centers on whether they discriminate against students of color (most Asian young people exempted) as well as low-income students generally.  Standardized tests, though, have been perpetually and intensively scrubbed of possibly biased questions for decades now.  But there is another essential, albeit largely unrecalled testing effort that goes back much longer, and it’s hard to miss its irony.

The widespread use of standardized tests in admissions was a mostly a post-World War II advance.  In the words of one scholar, they were once the “darling of liberals and egalitarians,” as they did much to reduce discrimination against certain groups, especially Jews and Asians back then.  Standardized tests promised to lessen the weight of subjective, often prejudicial influences such as preordained interviews, by helping to reveal students’ innate abilities.  And they succeeded.

Will test-dismissed admissions policies do the same?