Do standardized tests do more harm than good?


Audrey Amrein-Beardsley & Keon M. McGuire

More than half of four-year colleges and universities throughout the U.S. are no longer requiring either an SAT or ACT score for 2021 admissions. This spring, K-12 schools are struggling to administer state-required tests and fulfill federal assessment mandates.

Two faculty members at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College explore the effects of COVID-19 on standardized tests and admission exams — and how education leaders might address longstanding issues of inequity related to the tests in both higher education and K-12 settings.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley is a professor of educational measurement and policy at MLFTC whose research explores the intended and unintended consequences of test-based educational policies when realized in practice. Keon M. McGuire is an associate professor of higher and postsecondary education at MLFTC. His work examines the status of minoritized students across postsecondary educational settings and how race, gender and religion shape college students’ everyday experiences.

Question: Dr. Beardsley, you have been studying K-12 accountability throughout your career. What changes have we seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Amrein-Beardsley: In U.S. K-12 settings, state leaders were given permission by the U.S. Department of Education in spring 2020 to not administer their states’ standardized tests; although, the Biden Administration has recently reversed course, mandating that states, once again, re-administer the tests.

Apparently, and amid much controversy, states are now to administer state-level tests, clearly in creative (and likely invalid) ways, given the large proportions of students still learning from home, as well as a large number of students in abridged face-to-face and online schooling programs. Notwithstanding, the questionable administrations of the tests in spring 2021 are to help measure the allegedly (and perhaps likely) harmful effects COVID-19 has had on student learning and achievement throughout U.S. elementary and high schools, since spring 2019 (the last time during which most states’ standardized tests were given).  

How have universities reacted or responded to COVID-19 with regard to admissions policies and required tests? What influence have these changes had on the student body at various types of institutions? 

Amrein-Beardsley: In U.S. higher education settings, there has been a “tsunami of colleges and universities” in which higher education leaders have dropped SAT and ACT admission test requirements, for at least one year (i.e., for college-bound, spring 2021 graduates, entering U.S. colleges and universities in fall 2021). 

While “test-optional” and “test-blind” college entrance policies have been trending for years, now post-COVID there are over 1,600 or more than 60% of four-year colleges and universities throughout the U.S. no longer requiring either an SAT or ACT score for 2021 admissions, and almost 1,440 are already planning on doing the same for 2022 admissions, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. While some of these colleges and universities had already dropped both tests pre-COVID, given the current research, COVID put most, if not all, colleges’ and universities’ “test-optional” and “test-blind” policies and procedures into overdrive.

McGuire: An important question to ask is how various types of colleges and universities have responded differently to COVID-19 with regard to admission policies and what are the implications. For example, much of the conversation has focused on those highly selective undergraduate institutions in which leaders have temporarily or permanently waived standardized tests (e.g., SAT and ACT) requirements, which resulted in an increase in applications. This has led some to assume greater access. However, when we look particularly at structurally marginalized students and the institutions that serve them, we have also seen an overall decrease in enrollment among community colleges and a decreased likelihood of enrollment among first-time students. 

Do you think the omission or pause of standardized and admissions tests increased equitable opportunities for students?

McGuire: Within the context of the pandemic we might ask, who disproportionately bore the brunt of loss of life, un/under-employment and restricted formal learning opportunities? Lower-income, racially minoritized families and communities did. 

If we focus on these families, the question then becomes, did removing the SAT, for example, provide more equitable opportunities for students from these communities? Based on the decreased likelihood of enrollment among first-generation students and increased vulnerability of institutions that disproportionately serve lower-income and/or racially minoritized families (e.g., minority-serving institutions), I would argue no. If we are going to talk about equity, we have to start with those rendered continually, most vulnerable. 

In my estimation, current conversations around equity and the omission (or pause) of standardized testing in the undergraduate level admissions process is largely motivated by the reality that children from White, upper-middle-class families have been impacted. For decades, research has pointed to the fact that many standardized tests have long been proxies for class and race in the U.S., thus calling into question ideas of meritocracy which proponents of these tests assume and advance. However, they have largely remained intact, particularly at selective institutions. I wonder if this pause in testing will grant greater equity for those most vulnerable. 

It is also worth noting, standardized tests are not the only place where race and class “matter” in admissions processes. So, when considering equity in admissions we must also consider the advantages offered to students who are granted greater access to Advanced Placement /International Baccalaureate courses in high school; those who do not have to work in low-wage, after-school or summer jobs, but instead have access to coveted and high-status internships; families who are given testing accommodations through some combination of financial resources, know-how and trust of physicians and educators; students whose extracurricular and leadership activities are not considered “too Black”; those who benefit from accumulated histories of exclusion through legacy admissions; and those who have access to academic tutoring and (in)formal coaching for college essay writing. When we consider these things, one might assume that those who are positioned to most immediately take advantage of the SAT being omitted are those who are already advantaged. 

Beardsley: In higher education, while there is also certainly evidence that given the reduced SAT and ACT requirements the extent to which applications have increased, notably among those who would have likely not applied to higher education students prior (e.g., if formerly deemed as “out of reach”), evidence that is still coming in now suggests that rejection rates are higher this year than, really, ever. What this may mean, again, is that those with better academic experiences in high school (e.g., access to APA and IB courses) and essays, for example, both of which carried greater weight this pandemic year than years prior, may have counted more, still raising issues with equity given the increased proportion of applicants who did not have prior access to such academic opportunities.

In K-12 settings, I doubt we will learn much about equity during this “experiment,” beyond that those with higher needs likely learned and achieved less during the pandemic given lack of resources. The test scores at issue already told us this, year-by-year and every year prior, however, regardless of COVID-19. 

What would be the optimal way to move forward with regard to standardized testing in K-12 and college admissions tests?

Amrein-Beardsley: I would advocate moving away from such tests at both levels given, primarily and in the name of equity, the extent to which all such large-scale standardized tests are so highly correlated with all indicators related to race and privilege. The more we move away from such indicators, the better, more holistic, fairer and less prejudiced all decisions as based on all such tests will be. However, “equity indicators” need to also be developed, implemented, and actually used, so as to also help offset the privilege that quite literally prior privilege, opportunity, and access to opportunity still seem to have played in most university’s college admissions systems. The goal, I think, is for universities to increase their diversity enrollment figures every year, all the while adjusting their admissions processes to ensure that their institutions, at minimum, continue to reflect the diversity imperatives put forth by so many, including our most highly selective higher education institutions. 

McGuire: At the very least, we must honestly say that standardized tests, which track class and race more than predict success in college, should be given significantly less weight in admission processes — both formally and informally. One response is to say we need more holistic assessments, but even those fall short in many ways to provide postsecondary educational opportunities to those most vulnerable. COVID-19, as well as our nation’s reckoning with the ongoing realities of slavery and settler colonialism, give us an opportunity to rethink, reimagine and build anew if we choose to. This is represented, in part, in the National Association for College Admission Counseling commission to develop specific proposals for reimagining financial aid and college admission systems and ultimately eliminating racial inequity in postsecondary educational access. This is reflected in the growing number of free college programs, particularly those that cover full costs beyond tuition and fees, and are accessible to adult students or those who are formerly incarcerated. A more progressive and inspiring call is to commit to making public colleges and universities free to all.