How SAT shifts will impact college access and equity

Critics have long argued the high-stakes test are an unreliable and inequitable judge of students’ academic abilities
By: | February 19, 2021
More colleges and universities have made SATs and ACTs optional since the COVID outbreak. (AdobeStock/panitan)More colleges and universities have made SATs and ACTs optional since the COVID outbreak. (AdobeStock/panitan)

COVID further eroded the SAT’s role in college admissions, giving more ammunition to critics who have long argued the high-stakes test are an unreliable and inequitable judge of students’ academic abilities.

Because high school juniors have been unable to take the test over the last year, more colleges and universities have joined institutions that had previously made SATs and ACTs optional over concerns about fairness and effectiveness.

Perhaps in response to COVID’s disruptions, the College Board earlier this year eliminated the SAT’s subject tests and the optional essay, and vowed to give students more flexibility in taking the high-stakes exam.

“I don’t think getting rid of subject tests will change people’s opinion about the SAT,” says Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “I do think it’s a good thing to remove barriers to college entry that aren’t related to subsequent success.”


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Those changes, however, won’t do much to make the SAT more equitable, says Polikoff, an expert in the testing, K-12 education policy and the Common Core.

“All measures in college admission are in one way or another are stacked in favor of more advantaged white and Asian students, and more affluent applicants,” he says.

The biggest and most immediate factor in reducing the influence of high-stakes placement tests may be the unlikelihood that college administrators will reinstate the exams after making them optional or eliminating them altogether, Polikoff says.

On the other hand, state systems, such as the University of California, that plan to drop the SATs and ACTs, intend to create new tests. But, Polikoff cautions, any new exams will face the same questions of equity and accuracy that plagued the old high-stakes tests.

“Once you’ve taken something away, putting it back is quite difficult,” he says. “Any school trying to go back from that would probably take a lot of heat.”

Here are two key components of the evolving role of the SAT and other high stakes tests:


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