Do Test-Optional Admissions Policies Really Help Students From Low-Income Backgrounds Enroll in College?

Recently, The University of Chicago became the first high-profile, highly selective university to remove the SAT and ACT from their admission requirements. Advocates for the decision say it may make it easier for first-generation, low-income, and other underrepresented student groups to get into UChicago–and any other schools that may follow suit.

The decision has also summoned up a longstanding debate about the emphasis placed on standardized tests. Should the tests be an important factor in determining students’ success–particularly when underrepresented students face barriers to preparing for and taking them?

UChicago’s Undergraduate Dean John Boyer said he feared that focusing on test scores skews admissions in favor of higher-income students from upper-echelon high schools and that “we’re allowing ZIP codes to basically define the future of American life.” Dean Boyer, with all due respect, ZIP codes already do define American life.

It’s true–these exams can reflect educational inequity, and it’s hard to stomach the much lower average scores for first-generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds. And if educational inequity was unique to the SAT and ACT, de-prioritizing the tests would be an obvious solution.

However, if the argument is to eliminate admissions requirements that perpetuate or reflect inequities, there would be few, if any, requirements left. Attending a better-funded school in a wealthier community can impact not only a student’s test scores, but their GPA, the quality of instruction, the college counseling they do or do not receive, and their access to extracurriculars and AP courses. College visits, which can give students an edge at highly selective universities, are easier to make with greater financial resources. Even UChicago’s new two-minute video introduction requirement, designed to appeal to today’s teenagers, assumes a certain level of access to and familiarity with technology–but low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle or upper-income peers. Plucking out one white hair in a sea of grey does not automatically make you more youthful; in the same way, removing one thing that appears to be inequitable does not make things more equitable as a whole. In fact, it may lead to more inequity.

And while UChicago can grab headlines with an announcement like this, given its 8.4 percent acceptance rate and total undergraduate enrollment of around 6,000, it will have little impact on the vast majority of college-going students. Today, nearly half of all students are attending community colleges, and nearly two-thirds of students seeking four-year degrees attend public colleges.

I will admit, I do have a horse in this race. CollegeSpring’s mission is to equip schools and their teachers with a SAT, ACT, and college knowledge curriculum that prepares students to succeed on the exam and enter college. But the race I and countless others in the college prep and access space are in is not the standardized testing race; our aim is greater equity and social justice.

There isn’t one solution to these complex problems–but an area where we can level the playing field for students is indeed by preparing them to succeed on standardized tests. It’s the one thing that students can control in a short amount of time that may tell a different story than their GPA, help them secure scholarships, and place out of remedial classes. Removing the SAT / ACT or replacing it with requirements even more skewed against low-income students will likely lead to fewer of those students being accepted to schools like UChicago, not more.

We’ve served 25,000 students since our inception; 46 percent enroll in a four-year college within two years of high school graduation, compared to 31 percent of their peer group nationwide. Without doing well on the SAT or ACT, and receiving other subsequent supports, they may not have had that opportunity. The SAT score gap can close when students are given the right preparation and resources: in 2017, the difference between the average SAT score of a student who used a fee-waiver vs. a student who did not was 109 points; compare that to the average CollegeSpring student’s increase of 104 points (the vast majority of CollegeSpring students qualify for fee-waivers). In admissions processes where every point counts and thousands of dollars are spent on private SAT or ACT prep, we need to do right by students from low-income backgrounds. Providing equitable preparation is one of many steps we should take to put students on par when applying for college.

Providing this support is not as easy or as simple as giving students practice questions (although creating a realistic test-taking environment for students so they know what to expect on Test Day is a key part of our process). We’ve found that helping students focus on strengthening core academic skills leads to greater improvement. We also help students gain comfort and familiarity with the test’s role in college applications and how it can impact their educational opportunities down the road. This approach—one that links academics, social-emotional skills, and building context around the exam—results in Test Confidence™: a feeling of readiness and motivation to take the SAT or ACT.

I applaud UChicago’s willingness to test new admissions strategies. However, it remains to be seen how UChicago’s policy will impact the demographics of their future classes. In the meantime, we will lose a generation of college-goers if we cross our fingers and hope that test-optional policies do the trick. It’s not the test itself that is inherently unequal; it’s the lack of equitable access to test preparation that perpetuates inequality. We need to provide students with the right resources to approach their opportunities, not take away the opportunity itself. That’s why in addition to updating policies, we must prepare every student for every element of the college admissions process–including standardized tests.

Dr. Yoon S. Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring