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Opinion: The lose-lose decision on the SAT

Opinion by Jill Filipovic

(CNN) — Starting next year, Dartmouth College will reinstate its policy of requiring applicants to submit their SAT or ACT scores along with their admissions packages. It’s the first Ivy League school to do so, after many elite colleges and universities dropped the SAT requirement during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to a combination of student difficulties taking the test in the midst of lockdowns and longer-standing concerns that the test has reinforced racial and socioeconomic biases. Dartmouth isn’t the only school to take similar action. MIT and Georgetown have both brought back mandatory SAT or ACT scores, and other highly-selective colleges are reportedly considering the same.

A few things seem to be true at once: The SAT does reflect long-standing racial and economic inequalities, but getting rid of it may actually be worse for underprivileged students. And elite colleges may be eliminating the SAT requirement as much for self-preservation as student wellbeing.

There is no question that students who are White, Asian or from wealthy families generally score higher on the SAT than those who are Black, Hispanic or poor. For that reason, many progressives, myself included, have historically looked at the SAT with deep skepticism, seeing the test as a tool for reinforcing inequality. The problem, though, is that this experiment in getting rid of the test, coupled with a recent US Supreme Court decision that forbids schools from taking student race into account in admissions processes, may be even worse.

That’s because, without the SAT — and with the pervasive grade inflation that means huge numbers of straight-A students are applying to top schools — college admissions officers are using softer, more personalized metrics, the kind that may be even easier for affluent students from more sophisticated families to game. SAT scores do indeed reflect racial and economic privilege, but so do college essays, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation.

Students from wealthier families are much more likely than students from poorer ones to be able to afford things like essay-writing coaches and editors, exotic volunteer trips, expensive sports programs and pricey admissions counselors who can help a student perfectly tailor their application to an elite school’s sweet spot. Wealthy students, of course, also had (and continue to have) better access to things like SAT prep courses. But SAT practice tests are much more available and affordable to ambitious high schoolers than, say, private college coaches.

The SAT also allowed many low-income and minority students to stand out. And, unfortunately, these same students seem to have been hurt by recent policies that make SAT score submissions optional: Dartmouth researchers found that disadvantaged students, worried their SAT scores weren’t high enough, often withheld them, even though their scores could have actually helped. Other research suggests that SAT scores are a better predictor of college success than grades.

But that’s of course not the whole story. Some research has also found that elite private institutions that dropped the SAT requirement saw their numbers of Black and low-income students increase. Some school administrators reported that students who didn’t submit test scores had lower first year GPAs than students who did. The reality is that schools simply haven’t had enough time to fully study the outcome of this policy change, which is perhaps why so many of them have extended it for years to come.

And there may be another reason many elite schools remain hesitant to reinstate the SAT. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that admissions officers had to do away with race-conscious admissions programs. The lawsuit hinged in large part on SAT scores; the group that sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina over their admissions practices provided evidence that Asian students who had higher grades and SAT scores than other students, including White ones, still saw themselves discriminated against in admissions. The Court’s conservative majority seemed to find this persuasive: The hard numbers of SAT scores and grades provide clear data points. I wonder if schools that want to maintain racial diversity and provide equality of opportunity may have concluded that requiring SAT scores creates a clear vulnerability, opening them up to more lawsuits.

The group that sued Harvard and UNC, Students for Fair Admissions, is a project started by conservative activist Edward Blum, and funded by several conservative groups. The American conservative movement has also taken aim at public education, including campaigns to ban books; the Republican Party has tried to slash funding for public education, including proposing cuts to support programs for districts with a high number of low-income students. The same party that largely opposes affirmative action doesn’t seem to be interested in taking the necessary steps to level the educational playing field well before students begin applying to college.

The SAT makes clear the racial and socioeconomic gaps that persist in the United States. Removing it from college applications may make it easier for some disadvantaged students to get into some colleges, while obscuring the potential of others. But it won’t address the much deeper problems that requires much earlier and much more robust interventions. It should be a scandal, then, that some conservatives both seek to tie schools’ hands when it comes to race-conscious admissions and also strip opportunities from younger disadvantaged students. Instead, too many of us are simply arguing about a test.

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