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If SATs aren't really needed to get into college, why are we still taking them?

The SAT and standardized tests similar to it strike fear into the hearts of many college-bound students each year. Colleges use these aptitude tests — aimed to predict students’ ability to succeed in college — to help determine their acceptances and to award scholarship funds.

Recent SAT and ACT testing sessions were canceled because of COVID-19. Many colleges have therefore made applications test-optional for students affected by cancelations. Some schools are even making test-optional applications a permanent fixture. This unprecedented lapse in testing requirements has raised familiar questions about the role of standardized testing in the college admissions process. 

If universities can do without testing — claimed to be a poor predictor of students' collegiate success by the likes of the LA Times  — then perhaps they should.

The College Board, formerly known as the College Entrance Examination Board, was formed in 1900 by 12 university presidents from schools such as New York University and Columbia. Their goal was to standardize the admissions of top universities by testing aptitude via proficiency in a variety of subjects, such as physics and Latin composition. 

The first SAT, offered in 1926, was largely informed by the newly-invented IQ test. Carl Brigham, a eugenicist and advocate against “racial mixture” in education, was tasked by the College Board to develop what became known as the scholastic aptitude test. Over the years, however, the predictive ability, as well as the aforementioned history of the SAT, came into question, leading the College Board to change the meaning of the acronym.

The SAT became the scholastic assessment test in 1990 in order to “correct the impression among some people that the SAT measures something that is innate and impervious to change regardless of effort or instruction.” 

This newly stated purpose — to assess knowledge rather than predict future success — was followed with several changes to test content and length. Failure to achieve this by 1997 led the College Board to remove meaning behind the acronym altogether; the SAT is an empty acronym without a specific purpose. 

This hasn’t stopped universities from relying on the test to determine which students will stay in school and graduate.

Some claim that the SAT is a “tool of the meritocracy” and that standardized college aptitude testing allows universities to give students from all backgrounds equal opportunities in the admissions process. However, the SAT is more often an ineffective benchmark biased toward the highly educated and those who can afford to train and take the test more than once. 

In fact, research from Pace University and others have demonstrated grades as the top predictor of long-term success in college. Not only this, but GPA and high school grades have been shown as much less affected by factors such as income, race and parental education, according to the LA Times. After all, grades represent a student in the long term, while a test is only reflective of a few hours.

All of this isn’t to say that some kind of standardized evaluation is never helpful. After all, a large applicant pool demands fair individual consideration, which is difficult without some fair metric. However, if some of the most sought after universities in the U.S. are able to waive their SAT and ACT requirements because of the pandemic, they should consider why they require them at all. 

The College Board continues to argue that the SAT is necessary because test scores alongside high school grades provide the best predictor of college success. Yet the SAT has been found lacking in ability to test aptitude as well as to assess general knowledge. It doesn’t adequately help schools base admissions more firmly on merit or predict long-term success. The SAT isn’t a tool for meritocracy but instead a relic sustaining a $1.4 billion testing industry.

The ability of colleges to make the change shows that standardized testing, while perhaps helpful to schools, isn’t necessary. If they can do without testing then they should.

The SAT, touted as a springboard into a bright future, has shown itself to be a sinkhole from which few but the elite can escape. The pandemic has shown that the SAT isn’t necessary. It needs to go.

Caroline Rose is a sophomore writing, rhetoric and technical communication major. Contact Caroline at roseck@dukes.jmu.edu.