On the Utility, Fairness of Standardized Tests for College Admissions


The long-established use of standardized tests (the SAT and ACT) as a major criterion for gaining admission to college is increasingly being questioned or rejected.

Earlier in May, the regents of the University of California—the most populous university system in the country—voted unanimously to phase out the requirement that applicants submit their SAT score as part of the admissions process.

The main points of contention are: What can and can’t standardized tests do? And are they fair?

The evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that standardized tests successfully identify students with the aptitude to do well in college. According to a report by the University of California faculty senate earlier this year, the SAT and ACT “add substantially to UC’s ability to predict student success.” This is of important practical value. As with any business, colleges and universities strive to find the best match of product and consumer.

Several college students who weighed in on standardized testing in the pages of The Wall Street Journal identified the positive value of the SAT with incisive clarity: “a uniquely valuable tool in … assessing applicants’ potential”; “the most objective piece of information in college admissions”; “Standardized testing represents the promise of merit-based advancement for every American”; “the last bastion of impartiality in an otherwise mystifying and unaccountable system”; “a great way to compare candidates of similar backgrounds” [emphasis in original].

However, by no stretch of the imagination can standardized tests provide colleges with all the input they need to decide which applications to accept.

Standardized tests can’t measure the multiple unquantifiable virtues that can lead to success in college—commitment, motivation, tenacity, desire, etc. It takes interviews and the testimony of witnesses to tell if an applicant feels a calling and is ready to go “all in,” or whether the applicant is applying to college because that’s what mom and dad expect, but who has no direction in life and may be one of the many college students who parties for four years.

In short, the SAT may indicate those who have the greatest aptitude for academic success—and that can be highly useful to college admissions departments—but standardized test scores cannot reveal the totality of applicants’ makeup (the unquantifiable intangibles) and therefore cannot identify which candidates have the greatest potential.

The perceived shortcoming of the SAT isn’t its utility in identifying students who can process and analyze information relatively quickly and correctly (not a perfect measure of intelligence, but a factor that correlates well with successful completion of a college curriculum); rather, the major defect of standardized tests is the allegation that they are unfair.

Indeed, some critics go so far as to assert that such tests are “morally impermissible” and “discriminatory” due to racial and ethnic disparities in test scores.

A Moral Standpoint

Let us concede that standardized tests are discriminatory—not in the malicious sense of deliberately targeting minorities, but in the morally neutral sense that, without knowing the ethnic makeup of individual test-takers, they effectively and blindly distinguish between students with relatively high and relatively low academic aptitude.

The fact is that virtually every college has for decades considered factors other than SATs scores to admit minority applicants. The notion that anything short of admitting students in ethnic and racial quantities that are perfectly proportional to the overall population must be unfair doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The world doesn’t work that way. The NBA and the NFL certainly don’t practice racial proportionality.

Those who say the SAT is immoral believe in the ideology of entitlement. No American has the right to get into a particular college—or any college, for that matter—any more than one has a right to be a recording star, a doctor, a master electrician, or a billionaire entrepreneur. Nor is one entitled to have a college degree than to have a Cadillac or a 6,000-square-foot house. We are free to strive to attain these goals and obtain these objects, but there’s no right to have them.

If the concern is morality, then one needs to question how moral it is to admit underqualified students into a rigorous academic program in which they have a high probability of failing. Many such students drop out of college and then struggle with the twin burdens of disappointment and tuition debt. Is that moral? It certainly isn’t compassionate. Indeed, colleges and universities have (or should have) both a moral and fiduciary responsibility to admit students who have a high probability of success.

And how moral is it—how beneficial to society—when colleges dilute the rigor of their courses to accommodate less capable pupils rather than push exceptional students to the fullest development of their innate abilities?

That being said, there undeniably is major, unconscionable unfairness in our society’s educational systems. But the SATs and ACTs don’t impose that unfairness; on the contrary, they expose it. By the time high school seniors take standardized tests, the damage has been done—the unfairness horse got out of the corral years earlier.

Reasons for Disparity

The reasons for disparity in the scores of various ethnic groups are institutional, political, and cultural.

First, many minority students are frequently held back by inferior public schools. Having worked in some awful schools as a substitute teacher, I can assure you that the abysmal quality of many inner-city schools is not an urban legend but a dismaying fact.

That we allow this blatant unfairness in educational opportunities to persist is a political scandal. The teachers’ unions resist any attempt to add needed competition into primary and secondary education via school choice measures, and their political lackeys—dependent on unions’ financial support—protect the status quo.

If you happened to watch the recent two-hour PBS program profiling Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, one of his many profoundly significant statements was that he saw at an early age he needed to learn to speak and write correct English rather than languish in the dialect spoken in his boyhood neighborhood in order to reach his full potential in the United States. This is the cultural factor.

If minority parents don’t insist that their children speak correct English; if they simply view schools as glorified babysitting services that keep the kids off their hands for seven or eight hours rather than places where vitally important education can take place; if they refuse to impress upon their children the importance of education and the necessity of hard work to attain success, then why should anyone be surprised that those kids are disadvantaged and ill-prepared to compete on the SAT?

Test Scores Aren’t Everything

As you can tell from what I’ve written, I think there’s a legitimate place for standardized tests in the college admissions process. And it shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for school districts and local or regional nonprofits to arrange for practice tests for poor kids if they believe that will help level the field. I also believe that it’s up to each postsecondary institution to decide what weight, if any, to place on such tests.

Finally, I would be the last one to say that standardized tests yield ideal results. In fact, let me share with you a personal example of when a standardized test totally blew it.

My buddy, JD, wanted to go to law school. He took the LSAT and earned an average score. It wasn’t high enough to gain acceptance into the law schools to which he had applied. (An identical score, however, was sufficient for a minority pupil in our class to gain acceptance to an elite law school.)

I felt bad for JD, because he would have been a great lawyer. He was a real go-getter. He had vision, wisdom, sound judgment, superb people skills, and other strengths that don’t show up in LSATs, but which a diligent admissions department should have identified. However, JD wasn’t accepted to law school. Instead of giving up, though, he devised a Plan B.

JD settled for a master’s degree in urban planning, then went home to one of our major cities and got an entry-level job at City Hall. Every morning, he would arrive at work long before the offices opened. It just so happened that the mayor was also an early arriver. JD would engage the mayor in conversation, and before long, the mayor was using JD as a sounding board for various possible policies and tactics. So astute were JD’s observations that the mayor soon made him the budget director of this major U.S. city even though JD was only in his mid-20s.

JD didn’t stay in politics. Seeing where his city needed new facilities addressed to various needs, he coordinated a series of real estate developments. Now he’s worth tens of millions. The moral of the story? If you don’t get into your preferred academic program, don’t let that discourage you. Be flexible; keep moving forward. It’s the qualities you bring to the table—your insights, your caring, your common sense, your willingness to serve more than your academic credentials—that will bring you success.

Let me close with a counterintuitive thought: Getting a low SAT score might be a blessing in disguise. Do you recall the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it”? Not getting into a certain college just might be a lucky break for you. It turns out that college is a poor investment for many students.

First, as I wrote in a couple of articles about myths surrounding college for Forbes.com several years ago, a college diploma isn’t a ticket guaranteeing you the kind of job you’re hoping for. Postsecondary schools produce a greater supply of many majors than the job market can absorb even when the economy is booming. That’s why you have thousands of Americans with masters and even doctorates working in parking lots and tending bar.

Second, the current trend isn’t favorable. “The median income among the bottom half of college graduates is roughly 10 percent lower than it was three decades ago,” according to New York magazine.

Yes, the average lifetime earnings of college graduates are significantly higher than for non-graduates, but that’s because the average is pulled way up by the lofty earnings of those who graduate in the top half of their class. Conversely, the average is weighed down by the surprisingly modest earnings of many in the lower half. Getting into college and then finishing in the bottom half can be a very costly career move.

(Please note that I said “can be,” not “will be.” Each individual has to forge his or her own path, and there are no universal rules binding you mercilessly to their dictates. You, and not your SAT score, are the master of your fate.)

To every young American, I truly wish you the fulfillment of your dreams. Don’t give up just because there are some disappointing detours along the way. Be resourceful and learn to rely on your own abilities, initiative, creativity, and persistence. They will serve you better than any college degree that you could possibly earn.

This article appeared first in The Epoch Times. Used with the permission of the author.

Self-Educated American Contributing Editor Mark Hendrickson recently retired from the faculty at Grove City College where he remains Fellow for Economic and Social Policy at The Institute for Faith & Freedom. He is also a contributing editor of The St. Croix Review, sits on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation and writes opinion commentary for TheEpochTimes.com

Mr. Hendrickson’s most recent books include: The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change (2018), Problems with Picketty: Flaws and Fallacies in Capital in the 21st Century (2015), Famous But Nameless: Inspiration and Lessons from the Bible’s Anonymous Characters (2011); and God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism (with Craig Columbus, 2012).

Mark Hendrickson’s Archives.