Good Riddance, SAT. I Always Ignore You Anyway.

Andrea Gabor

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When the University of California decided to phase out its SAT and ACT admissions requirement last week, I danced a little jig.

The decision by the California university system, which has 285,000 students, was based on concerns that standardized tests are unfair to poor and minority students. It followed similar decisions by a number of other universities, including Indiana University and University of North Carolina, as well as smaller selective colleges. The University of Chicago, which made standardized tests optional two years ago, recently boasted that it had significantly boosted the number of first-generation and low-income students, as well as those from rural backgrounds.

It’s a big step forward, and not only for reasons of diversity and fairness. My own experience as a college professor who helps select students for a rigorous honors program has convinced me that there are better ways than tests to find students with the greatest hunger for learning and the most talent to put it to good use. But I also worry that colleges will replace testing with some other flawed shortcut instead of embracing improvements that won’t work without expenditures of money and time.

My observations square with recent data at many universities showing that grade-point averages are a better predictor of college graduation than standardized tests. Indeed, at the City University of New York, which boasts relatively high SAT scores for admitted freshman, half the graduating class is made up of transfer students, many from community colleges, whose SAT scores were not included in their applications; CUNY also is considering eliminating the SAT and ACT requirement.

Shifting to new criteria is likely to make college admissions more chaotic in the short term. Standardized tests relieve admissions departments of time-consuming and expensive tasks like sifting through transcripts and reading essays, which universities, strained by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, can ill afford to take on.

If public universities, especially, are serious about developing more robust and equitable admissions criteria, they will need to broaden their criteria for admissions, and find better ways to evaluate applicants. They must also avoid the temptation to fall back on the kinds of open-admissions policies that, in New York City, saw the dilution of admission standards in the 1970s, and jeopardized the university’s reputation. 

Two years ago, I was invited to evaluate applications for CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College. What I learned from that experience is that subjective measures, especially student essays and recommendations, can be powerful tools for identifying the most promising students. Of course, I soon realized that the applicants I was asked to evaluate had been pre-screened for their grades and SAT scores, meaning that only high-performing students were in the pool. I also saw that there was no discernible difference between students scoring in, say, the low 600s or the high 700s, or even students with perfect grade-point averages and those with a few low marks. So I eliminated test scores from consideration and ignored marginal differences in GPAs.

That meant essays, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities would be key to my recommendations. 

Each year I was paired with a colleague from another department; both years, we agreed almost entirely on which of the 40-or-so applicants we were assigned to evaluate most deserved our recommendation. SAT scores had nothing to do with our decisions.

Our favorite students fell into two categories: First, a small percentage of stellar graduates of religious and selective public schools, whose interests and activities stood out from the crowd; second, students from traditional public schools whose essays and resumes were not nearly as polished, but who showed intellectual curiosity and grit.

From essays and recommendations, I was drawn to a young woman whose father had abandoned her family, but who had found purpose and leadership opportunities in wrestling. There was a young man with Tourette’s syndrome who excelled at school and had built an impressive list of volunteer gigs despite having a mother described as “cruel” in at least one teacher recommendation. A yeshiva student caught my attention with a compelling essay about the tradeoffs between paying taxes and philanthropic giving.

In my Baruch classrooms, too, I’ve discovered that the students who shine — often the plucky public-school kids — are those who develop an intellectual passion and who would have fared well if measured by my impromptu Macaulay admissions criteria.

The close reading of Macaulay applications, including essays and recommendations, was done by volunteer faculty — a model difficult to replicate university wide. In 2019, Baruch College read 750 Macaulay applications culled from more than 3,600 total applications, and aimed to fill 100 slots. (In total, eight CUNY colleges accept about 520 Macaulay honors students annually.) While nationwide, essays and recommendations are still given more weight than test scores in overall college admissions, that’s not true of public colleges. For example, Baruch College typically receives 25,000 undergraduate applications, and essays and recommendations are typically read only for honors-college applicants and those at the cutoff margins as determined by grades and tests. (The school had 15,482 undergraduates in the 2019/2020 school year.) Even if the admissions office could reduce the applicant pool by a quarter based on GPAs, it would still have to plow through over 6,000 applications.

Phasing out standardized tests would mean a greater focus on GPAs, as well as finding better ways to use algorithms to analyze high school transcripts. That could include zeroing in on students who may have begun with weak grades, but improved over time; analyzing extracurriculars for stick-to-itivneness to filter out kids who sign up for a flurry of activities in the run-up to college applications; and identifying the most competitive courses — though here, again, colleges will have to be careful not to exclude promising students who attend high schools that don’t offer advanced classes.

High schools also will need to make changes. My stint as a Macaulay admissions volunteer showed that many teachers either don’t know their students well or don’t know how to write effective evaluations. And school counselors, whose jobs involve far more than college applications, are overburdened.

To build the strongest cohort, colleges will need to invest in the staff and training needed to wade through countless essays and recommendations so they can make sound judgments. They will also need to work with high schools to make sure they provide a more holistic picture of their graduates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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