photo by Jess Daninhirsch

Many students spend large amounts of time and money preparing for standardized tests.

Opinion: Tried, Tested, Untrusted

Colleges have brandished test-optional admissions as a public commitment to equity and fairness. But a deeper look reveals that these policies only further maintain the status quo.

April 22, 2022

In May of 2019, the College Board made a controversial announcement. It unveiled the Environmental Context Dashboard, colloquially known as the adversity score, to address widespread racial and socioeconomic disparities in standardized test scores. The measure, which was piloted at 15 colleges in 2017 and expanded to 50 more a year later, was calculated from 15 factors, including the crime rate of a student’s neighborhood, the median family income in the area, and the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum. Between one and one hundred, a higher score indicated more obstacles faced by a student.

The score itself was unknown to students, families, and teachers. It did not affect a student’s actual SAT score—for example, a student who earned a 1250 with an adversity score of 60 would still report a 1250 to colleges—but would be given to admissions officers for context during a student’s evaluation.

“Merit is all about resourcefulness,” said David Coleman, the CEO and President of the College Board, when the measure was being rolled out. “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given.”

The plan imploded within just a few months amid extensive backlash from students, parents, and college officials. After backpedaling, the College Board launched a new tool called Landscape in August of 2019, which provides similar information as the adversity score but would not assign students a definitive number quantifying their struggles.

The College Board’s experiments in the equity realm have come about because the achievement gap in standardized testing is too glaring to ignore.

High-income students are more than twice as likely as low-income students to score between 1400 and 1600 on the SAT, which has a high score of 1600. On the math portion of the exam, the average scores for white and Asian students are markedly higher than for Black and Latino or Hispanic students, and male students also tend to score higher than female students. Since 1998, the average SAT score of students with well-educated parents has increased by five points, while for those whose parents have only graduated from a two-year college, the average has dropped by 27 points. Scoring on the ACT similarly reflects wealth and racial disparities.

Students with higher scores tend to have the means to take standardized tests multiple times, go to schools with better test preparation, and are even more likely to get 504 designations, which accommodate students with anxiety or ADHD by allowing for extra time or a private space in which to test.

It was these statistics that caused a coalition of students, advocacy groups, and one school district to file a lawsuit against the University of California in 2019, claiming that the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions was discriminatory on the basis of race and wealth. In May of 2021, the university settled the lawsuit, eliminating the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions and scholarship considerations and announcing plans to develop its own standardized test as a replacement by 2025.

Many have also questioned the sanctity of standardized tests as a measuring tool of achievement. Various studies have concluded that academic performance, as measured by high school GPA, is a better predictor of college success than test scores, potentially because grades are based on many factors over an extended period of time. 

Further research suggests that measuring students based on high school GPA, rather than standardized test scores, results in a more socioeconomically and racially diverse applicant pool. 

According to UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, if the UC system were to consider only grades, 12 percent of the top tenth of its applicants would be Black or Latino; if it were to consider only test scores, that number would be more than cut in half. Black and Latino students, as well as female students, are more likely to have higher GPAs paired with lower test scores, while students from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to have lower GPAs and higher test scores—suggesting that disadvantaged kids suffer in the testing realm and that some privileged kids manage to score well despite otherwise poor academic performance.

Others argue that dropping standardized tests could “eliminate visible inequity in favor of more insidious and opaque discrimination,” as Ember Smith and Richard V. Reeves write for the Brookings Institution, maintaining inequality in admissions but now in the murky waters of the holistic evaluation system, which assesses applicants based on multiple factors, some arguably very subjective and vague. 

“It is inappropriate to blame admissions testing for inequities in society,” said Marten Roorda, the former CEO of ACT. “We don’t fire the doctor or throw away the thermometer when an illness has been diagnosed. Differences in test scores expose issues that need to be fixed in our educational system.”



"File:Great Dome, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA.jpg" by John Phelan is marked with CC BY 3.0.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the only schools reinstating testing requirements in its admissions process.

But recently, many colleges decided to do away with standardized test score requirements. Over 600 four-year colleges and universities implemented test-optional policies during the pandemic, up from about 1,000 schools that didn’t require test scores prior to 2020. 46 percent of applications submitted through the Common App in the fall of 2020 included test results, a drop of over 30 percentage points from the previous year. 

This statement from Laurie Koehler, Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management at George Washington University, reflects the way many colleges publicly justified the move to test-optional:

“The test-optional policy should strengthen and diversify an already outstanding applicant pool and will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households.”

But after the fall of 2022 had passed, some schools reversed course. This is what Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had to say about the school’s decision to re-implement testing requirements for the fall of 2023:

“[E]ducational inequality impacts all aspects of a prospective student’s preparation and application, not just test-taking…low-income students, underrepresented students of color, and other disadvantaged populations often do not attend schools that offer advanced coursework…They often cannot afford expensive enrichment opportunities, cannot expect lengthy letters of recommendation from their overburdened teachers, or cannot otherwise benefit from this kind of educational capital…And unlike some other inequalities—like access to fancy internships or expensive extracurriculars—our empirical research shows the SAT/ACT actually do help us figure out if someone will do well at MIT.”

He added that he hoped the policy would help create a “robustly diverse” class.

These statements boil down to the same thing: the equity argument. But it’s being used to justify two opposite courses of action. 

A college can’t diverge from the norm—whether that’s going test-optional after years of testing requirements or re-implementing requirements after a period of test-optional—without a reason. The reason must be widely acceptable in the relatively liberal world of colleges and support an institution’s public goals, which usually include expanding access to higher education for those who have previously had difficulty securing it. 

So, contradictory actions can be backed by a uniform reason. Because though institutions may have an internal rationale that results in one policy or another, they know it benefits them to project an image mainstream in higher education—namely, that of an open-minded, diverse institution that opens doors to people of every background. 

This reputation maintenance is not necessarily malicious; every major institution has to worry about optics. Further, data on the legitimacy of test scores and impact of test-optional policies is not conclusive. 

The percentage of Black and Asian students offered admission to Harvard both rose about three percentage points in the spring of 2021 from the year prior, and the student body of the University of Southern California saw similar gains for Black and Hispanic students. Many institutions have seen significantly more applications from first-generation and racially underrepresented students and are celebrating freshman classes more diverse than ever before.

But previous studies have shown that test-optional policies implemented before the COVID-19 pandemic yielded minimal gains in diversity. One examining test-optional policies at 100 colleges that adopted the policy between 2005-06 and 2015-16 found that the share of Black, Latino, and Native American students, as well as the share of low-income students, each rose by only one percentage point, similar to schools that kept testing requirements. In fact, the improvement in enrollment for women exceeded that of the aforementioned underrepresented groups.

A 2014 study from the University of Georgia examining 32 selective liberal arts colleges with test-optional policies concluded that the policies had not made “any progress in narrowing these diversity-related gaps after they adopted test-optional policies” but had benefited the schools “in more institution-promoting ways.”

These schools are primarily focused on keeping dollars and applications rolling in. And to stay relevant and desirable, they compete with each other.

Colin S. Diver, formerly the president of Reed College, wrote a column in The New York Times in 2006 warning of how colleges benefit from going test-optional. “Once a few colleges adopt the tactic, their competitors feel pressure to follow suit, lest they suffer a drop in rank,” he wrote. “And so a new front opens in the admissions arms race.”

He astutely predicted what would happen nearly fifteen years later. Higher education author Jeffrey J. Selingo recounts a remark by an admissions dean at an Ivy League school after Selingo informed him that another selective college might soon drop its testing requirement: “That would give me an opening to follow,” he had said. “We just can’t be first.”

Save for Cornell University, which was the first Ivy League school to announce it was going test optional, in April of 2020, all of the Ivy League colleges made their test-optional announcements within two weeks of each other, in June. A similar pattern played out at other selective liberal arts schools in the spring and summer of that year.

The winds have just shifted in the test-optional direction. Colleges face backlash when going against the grain. 

Like students vying for spots in a school’s freshman class, colleges, too, are competing with each other—to appear more prestigious, more selective, to move up in the infamous U.S. News Rankings that claim to know which institution is the best in the country, and which is the second best, and why the first is number one and the second is number two and not the other way around.

For the institutions that care most about prestige, the new test-optional norm has panned out wonderfully. 

They can announce a commitment to diversity (pretty much a requirement in today’s world of higher education). They can enhance their appearance of exclusivity (with a massive boost in applications, acceptance rates have plummeted). And they can boast higher average standardized test scores than in years past (when no one is required to submit a test, the students who opt to send scores are largely those with higher ones).

“I sometimes think I should write a handbook for college admission officials titled ‘How to Play the U.S. News & World Report Ranking Game, and Win!’” writes Diver, the former Reed College president, in his New York Times op-ed. “I would devote the first chapter to a tactic called ‘SAT optional.’”

Even if these schools truly have gained ground in the equity department through test-optional, they’ve achieved this in a way that also benefits them. 

So, a win-win? Yes. But it’s less of a win for the students when one considers what else these schools could be doing to expand access to the education they offer, and aren’t.

High-profile institutions’ attempts to become—or appear—more equitable through test-optional policies do not fundamentally challenge the elite and selective image that these schools cultivate. Test-optional has become the path of least resistance—the path that maximizes internal diversity and creates shining optics while keeping the acceptance rates low, plus the path that practically every other high-profile institution is taking, too. 

It is not ingenuine or completely ineffective of these schools to try to make a difference. Top colleges have done a lot of good in bringing education to more people by offering online courses, implementing outreach programs for underrepresented minority students, and meeting families’ demonstrated financial need. 

But if they really wanted to make their supposedly world-class education more accessible, why not expand the size of their freshman class, perhaps open another campus? Why not drop advantages afforded to athletes, legacies, children of faculty and staff, and children of donors, a practice that favors white students? Why not eliminate Early Decision admissions, which benefits students who don’t have to worry about comparing financial aid offers across different schools? Why not expand recruitment beyond wealthy “feeder” high schools?

Unlike test-optional, these moves would not benefit elite schools. Some colleges have taken small steps in the right direction, but many more have stuck to the status quo. 

“In the rush to climb the pecking order, educational institutions are adopting practices, and rationalizations for those practices, unworthy of the intellectual rigor they seek to instill in their students,” Diver writes.

The Inequality Factor


"Standardized Test Close-Up" by biologycorner is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Standardized tests reveal that students in the U.S. start on an uneven playing field.

Let’s return to the College Board’s adversity score. 

Besides the fact that reducing anyone’s struggles to a single number strips away more context than it adds, the very creation of this sort of metric is, like the justifications for testing policies, very revealing.

Robert Schaeffer, an executive at FairTest, an organization that advocates for more equity in standardized testing, points out that if the SAT needs this sort of contextual framework to make it valid, then “it’s a concession that it’s not a good test.” 

I’ll take that a step further. 

The SAT is spitting out data that practically screams about how inequitable the education system is in this country. The scoring disparities revealed in the raw data are stark. Yet the exam continues to be administered, and admissions officers keep making their selections. The SAT may now be more accessible, more mindful of inequalities, more “with the times” than it was in years past. But attempts to keep the test relevant—including publications from the College Board alleging that grade inflation heightens socioeconomic and racial inequalities—are only a way to justify a certain metric and broader system for evaluating students for college, despite that metric and the results of that system clearly showing something is deeply wrong with the entire process. 

The adversity score’s very creation was essentially the College Board admitting that the U.S. is saturated with inequality, so much so that test scores must be accompanied by extra context because students start on such an uneven playing field—and still playing its role in a system of higher education that magnifies and even enables this inequality. 

Testing companies and colleges won’t just close their doors one day, spurred by a righteous fight against unfairness. As the admissions system keeps churning through students, we can’t just make it grind to a halt. But we should recognize that it is not completely fair and that attempts to make it seem that way are too often justification for a lack of real reform.

The trouble is creating a fairer admissions system when some students just have a leg up on others by virtue of their background.

Jiayang Fan writes for The New Yorker: “At the heart of every attempt to reform higher education in America is the question of how to equitably distribute opportunities in an inherently unequal world.”

Inequality in higher education in the U.S. runs incredibly deep. Black and Hispanic students have lost ground in terms of representation in the U.S.’s top colleges over the past 35 years. Black students make up 15 percent of college-age Americans but 9 percent of freshmen at Ivy League schools. Enrollment in the 468 best-funded and most selective four-year colleges is 75 percent white, while in the 3,250 lowest-funded community and four-year colleges it is 43 percent Black and Hispanic.

An analysis from The New York Times reveals the astounding wealth inequality at top colleges; Brown University’s student body has a median parental income of $204,200, which is in the 90th percentile for U.S. households. Children whose parents are in the top one percent of income distribution are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than those whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent. 

Researchers are still arguing about which part of the college admissions process is most inequitable. But, when seeing the low proportion of underrepresented minority students enrolled in top colleges—and any colleges—it is not radical to say that all parts of the admissions process are unequal, that no aspect is purely meritocratic.

One study even found that the content and style of students’ application essays were more strongly associated with household income than was SAT score. 

“In short, our work indicates that merely eliminating SAT scores from consideration in no way eliminates the signature of class from application materials,” concluded the study’s authors.

The advantages accrued by wealthy, upper middle class, and even some middle class families add up far before the college admissions process officially begins. It’s not just hiring SAT tutors or private college advisors. It’s years of affluence.

Families with the means to do so buy houses in the neighborhoods with the best schools; in 2010, in neighborhoods in the country’s largest metros, income segregation was twice as high among families with children living at home as among households without them. Parents who have enough money can be picky with where they want to raise their children to maximize their chances of success later in life.

Upper, upper middle, and middle class parents also invest more in their children’s extracurricular activities and spend more time reading to their children than working class parents. Parents with means “see their children as projects in need of careful cultivation,” according to Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. They closely supervise their children’s activities and teach them to advocate for themselves in the presence of authority figures, while working class parents believe their children will naturally thrive and give them greater independence. In 2016, parents from the top 20 percent of the income distribution spent about $8,600 per year on enrichment activities for their children, while families in the bottom 20 percent spent $1,700.

As Masha Gessen writes for The New Yorker, “For the socially and economically hopeful…raising a child in America is an eighteen-year process of investing in the college-admissions system.”

One study from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to not do as well as those with little talent from advantaged backgrounds. A kindergarten student in the bottom 25 percent of socioeconomic status with test scores in the top 25 percent has a 31 percent chance of earning a college education, while their peer in the top 25 percent of socioeconomic status with test scores in the bottom 25 percent has a 71 percent chance. The results translate to future earnings as well. Students in the lowest-income families are nine times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than students from the highest-income families. And extensive research has shown that poverty and racism can negatively impact brain development.

As Anthony P. Carnevale, lead author of the Georgetown CEW report, bluntly puts it, “To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart.”

Access to higher education is not unequal just because of the relatively few families who can pay $300 per hour for a standardized testing tutor, or because legacy admissions take up a certain number of spots at Yale. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be funneled into less prestigious colleges with less funding and are more likely to forego college altogether. 

Inequality exists on a wide scale. More affluent kids are always going to have a leg up on less affluent ones. I implicate myself in this: Would my SAT score, or my application essays, or my extracurricular activities have been the same if I were born to a less well-off family and attended a worse school? Of course not. It is impossible to examine a student and pull out some pure quality that is their merit, unaffected by their background and external circumstances. 

If colleges admitted this, then their admissions letters would hold a lot less weight, which threatens their relevance. So they continue to, while perhaps not outwardly claim, at least not push back too hard on the notion that they act as all-knowing oracles.

Socioeconomic and racial inequality cannot be wiped from the admissions process by simply discounting test scores. Nor can it be adjusted for by eliminating other factors. Every single aspect of a student’s college application is stamped with their background, their advantages and disadvantages. Making the admissions process completely fair is impossible. You would have to make U.S. society completely equal, make families all start out in the same place. The changes happening right now, though arguably marginally helpful, are just surface-level fixes—tissue paper over ravines.

Manufactured Scarcity


"Public School" by Ashamar is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Students in underfunded public schools often get left behind when it comes to higher education.

In the fall of 2019, the National Education Equity Lab, a New York-based nonprofit, gave over 300 upperclassmen from high-poverty high schools the chance to enroll in a Harvard course, “Poetry in America: The City From Whitman to Hip-Hop.” The students were taught by the same professor and held to the same standards as the college students taking the class at Harvard. 

The enrolled students were overwhelmingly students of color and those who qualified for free lunch. 89 percent passed. 

That is incredible, inspiring, and, when examined more deeply, a bit enraging. Few, if any of these students, would go on to attend an Ivy League school, yet they had proven that they were able to thrive in that sort of environment. 

“Harvard isn’t part of the conversation—you don’t even hear that word in [my hometown],” said one student who took the course. “It isn’t something that adults expect out of us. I don’t think it’s because they don’t believe in us; it’s just so much is stacked against us.”

How well could more students do if only they had the chance, the access to a top-tier education? Why do elite schools have so few spots, and why are so many four-year colleges prohibitively expensive?

This exclusivity applies to test-optional policies. So far, two classes of seniors applying to college have had a substantial proportion of students opt out of the test score screening. One of these classes, the high school seniors who graduated in 2021, are wrapping up their freshman year of college. And, presumably, they’ve done just fine academically; if they hadn’t, the majority of schools would be reinstating testing requirements, which isn’t happening.

That begs the question: Why were the testing requirements there in the first place? Why have colleges been keeping out students based on test scores for so many years when they were suddenly able to eliminate half of those test scores and still admit their freshman classes? If this requirement was at least somewhat arbitrary, which other ones are? How many of these barriers are artificial, manufacturing a sense of scarcity and prestige?

If testing requirements raise an obstacle to admission by leaning on a metric reflecting socioeconomic and racial disparities, and if test-optional policies do the same by leaning on other metrics that reflect socioeconomic and racial disparities (and by lowering overall acceptance rates), then how can the higher education landscape budge from its current state? It can’t, as long as barriers remain high and spots scarce.

Expanding Access


"Wheaton College Campus" by In Memoriam: Mr. Ducke is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Less selective colleges often get less attention from students and less funding.

Lowell High School is an elite public school in San Francisco. Competition for admission is fierce. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school switched to a lottery system to select its next class. As students and staff entered the building in the fall of 2021, they were all acutely aware that the selection process had been random, putting kids of all backgrounds and abilities together at Lowell for the first time.

Students and teachers alike struggled at the beginning. But as the year progressed, they adapted, with many students who would have previously never gotten into Lowell taking to the rigorous education and teachers crafting the structure needed to propel them to success. As the approaching summer brings an end to the experiment, the change threatening the excellence of Lowell is not the results of the lottery system, but impending budget cuts.

Public institutions, which enroll 73 percent of American college students, saw a decline in the average appropriation per student of 20 percent between 1990 and 2015. 

“There are sixty thousand undergraduates in Ivy League colleges. There are four hundred and twenty-eight thousand students, seven times as many, in the Cal State system alone,” writes Louis Menand for The New Yorker. “Those students should be getting more resources.” 

High schools should also do a better job of directing students to less selective colleges that still provide an excellent education, which themselves should receive more funding. Three-quarters of schools that use the Common App have acceptance rates of over 50 percent, but too many students and parents are focused on the few with acceptance rates in the single digits.

Inequality in the U.S. cannot be fixed by the relatively modest steps taken by test companies and colleges to diversify. That is because—just like the SAT, or like any process that alleges to measure merit—the college admissions process is evaluating students who have not started in the same place. Incredible students from disadvantaged backgrounds can demonstrate their ability and climb the socioeconomic ladder. But, more often than not, generational inequalities compound. Even as the percentage of college graduates has increased, so, too, has income and wealth inequality.


The word “meritocracy” was coined in a satirical sense. In 1958, Michael Dunlop Young invented the term in his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which criticized the United Kingdom’s education system by describing a dystopian future in which merit is valued above all else, creating a society divided between the merited, powerful elite and the lower class of the less merited. 

We’ve since dropped the sardonic edge of the word. Maybe merit is, as the leader of the College Board suggests, a matter of resourcefulness. Maybe it’s “IQ + Effort,” as Young defined it. And maybe it’s something more elusive, something that serves as a justification for a system of college admissions that needs some sort of promise to keep its wheels turning, to keep people buying in.

Test-optional was supposed to make the admissions decisions fairer, to get us closer to this phantom measure of merit. Time will tell if its contribution has been, in the grand scheme of things tested and untested, small or even smaller.

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About the Writer
Photo of Sam Podnar
Sam Podnar, Staff Writer

Sam Podnar is a senior at NASH. When she's not writing, she enjoys baking, reading, and talking too much about local politics.

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