The SAT & ACT: Gateways to Opportunity

Universities are at an admissions policy crossroads. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them adopted temporary test-optional stances, a shift celebrated by some as a step towards greater educational equity. Recently, however, these institutions have once more begun to acknowledge the value of standardized tests in college admissions, thus reigniting a nuanced debate over whether standardized college admissions tests can provide opportunities for high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds.

I argue that they can.

Critics of the SAT® and ACT® typically argue that these exams favor students whose families can afford expensive test prep services and materials, thereby reinforcing an inequality of opportunity. Moreover, these critics contend that standardized tests are culturally biased and that students’ performance is unduly and primarily influenced by their socioeconomic status.

However, these criticisms don’t capture the complete narrative.

For one, standardized tests provide an objective yardstick. For high-achieving students from low-income schools that regularly lack the rigorous coursework and grade inflation more typical at affluent schools, strong SAT or ACT scores can be a powerful tool for demonstrating college readiness and academic ability. Put more simply, these tests can help level the playing field.

They can also serve as a gateway to merit-based scholarships. Such scholarships constitute financial lifelines for low-income high achievers to access higher education.

Finally, the rise of free and low-cost test preparation resources has democratized access to test preparation, weakening one of the primary arguments against the equity of standardized testing. The barrier to entry for test prep success has never been lower.

“But you’re an SAT and ACT prep tutor,” I can imagine some arguing. “Of course you’re a fan of these tests.”

Fair enough. Don’t take my word for it then! The experts come to the same conclusion. Recent data from a survey conducted by the Kent A. Clark Center for Global Markets indicates that fully 81% of economists agree that standardized testing could indeed benefit disadvantaged students. They don’t have much doubt about it, either—when weighted by the experts’ confidence, the survey shows that 63% agreed and 27% strongly agreed with this viewpoint. That’s a whopping 90% consensus, which looks stronger still when paired with the fact that the remaining 10% comprises “uncertain” responses, with zero respondents disagreeing.

This stark absence of dissent suggests a widespread belief in the meritocratic value of standardized testing. As universities reconsider their admissions policies, the data provide a significant, quantitative foundation for the argument that standardized tests should be embraced rather than discarded.

Though imperfect, the SAT and ACT are instruments of opportunity, not barriers. For the sake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I hope colleges will continue to treat the tests as such.

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