In an Alameda Superior Court ruling this week, a judge ruled that the University of California system must immediately stop using the SAT and ACT for admissions during the pandemic. Lawyers who brought the suit against the UC system applauded the ruling against the “racist” SAT. Many headlines have questioned if this has finally signaled the death knell for the exams. But the death of the SAT is hardly nigh.
Even though the ruling against standardized tests made the news across the country, it’s really a blip on the screen in the year of COVID. And there are several reasons for this.
The fight isn’t over
First, one superior court judge likely won’t be the last word on this issue. The UC system has intimated that they will appeal the ruling. So the case will continue to work its way through the justice system for the time being, regardless of the temporary victory by those who oppose the test. The fact that the university system will go to the trouble and expense to fight to keep the tests–even when they’ve decided themselves to switch to a state-produced exam by 2025–speaks volumes about the value of such tests. As the UC faculty indicated in a recent survey, the SAT and ACT are consistently better indicators of a student’s potential success than high school GPA is. It makes sense to maintain that objective standard.
One of the reasons cited by the judge to ban the SAT and ACT was that students from disadvantaged neighborhoods and students with disabilities had diminished chances to take the tests due to cancellations during the COVID-19 outbreak. These cancellations affected all students during the crisis, not just those indicated in the suit. So the conditions that led to the judge’s decision are unique to 2020, and the argument ceases to be valid once the testing centers begin administering normally.
The tired argument against the SAT
For all the blustering by opponents of the SAT and ACT, claiming that the test unfairly discriminates against certain groups of students, this is as inaccurate a claim as its ever been. College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free prep for the test for those who want it, and every student would have access to that, if not at home, then at school or the local library. There are innumerable resources online for students to take practice tests and learn strategies for improving. The ACT also offers free resources for preparation on their website, and many schools offer exam prep courses as part of the regular class schedule.
So regardless of the student’s situation, s/he has resources to draw from to make improvements on the tests. Both tests have also made concerted efforts to ensure that there isn’t racial bias in the wordings of the questions, as that has been brought up as a criticism in the past.
What is the SAT anyway?
Through all this, it’s worth asking what the SAT actually is. One of the complaints that’s been lodged for years against the test is that it doesn’t ask the student about what s/he learned in school. Neither the SAT nor the ACT was designed to test a student’s class-specific knowledge. Both tests were designed to test college readiness, and that is a completely different issue.
I often ask students why they think there’s a reading section on the tests. Are they testing to see if you can read? No. They’re assessing a college-level skill: processing through unfamiliar information and answering basic questions about it. Why are the math questions so confusing sometimes? Because the test is designed to assess the ability to problem solve. Sure, you know basics of algebra, but can you do anything with them? Students who struggle on the tests tend to have struggles with critical thinking and problem solving, and those strategies end up being a large part of any preparation for the tests.
As a side note, one of the great benefits of preparing for the SAT or ACT is that students are reintroduced to math and English concepts that they may not have studied for years, and this can be a great help as they head off to their freshman years at their chosen schools.
The SAT isn’t the only piece of criteria
Opponents of the SAT and ACT often leave out that colleges don’t use the tests as the only tool for admission with students. Stanford routinely rejects perfect scorers on the exams because the test is only one piece of the puzzle. Schools generally value getting a good objective read on a student–this is the best way of comparing students from different states, counties, districts, and schools. A 4.0 at one school is very likely not equal to a 4.0 at another. The SAT and ACT work to normalize those numbers and give admissions departments another way of evaluating prospective students. So a good score doesn’t guarantee anything any more than a lower score does. But for those willing to put in the work, they can maximize their score so that it doesn’t hurt their chances at a particular school.
In sum, standardized tests will always carry some controversy. There will always be those who fault the objectivity and normalization that such tests bring to the process. But this single ruling in a superior court in a California county will not ultimately take away a valuable tool, both for students and for administrators across the country. So those that clamor for the death of the SAT will have to go on clamoring a bit longer.