Recently, the entire University of California system announced that it would be going test-optional for 2 years and test-blind in the subsequent years to follow. In the interim, the board would be working towards a possible solution to the disparities in standardized testing. There are several other schools that have been considering going “test optional” or have already committed themselves to doing so. Many of these schools are rolling out the “test optional” guidelines given the unique circumstances of the upcoming application cycle. It has been a long held belief that standardized testing puts low-income students and students from underserved communities at a disadvantage in the college admissions process.

Standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT have risen to prevalence in recent decades as “great equalizers.” Given the unique complexity of each state, city and school having different curriculums, such tests were intended to show a student’s ability by taking out extenuating factors like poor teaching or grade inflation on the GPA. However, it soon became increasingly clear that these standardized tests were putting students from FLI (first-generation and low-income) communities at a disadvantage. In 2015, Inside Higher Ed found that the lowest average scores on SAT subsections were from students whose families made less than $20,000 and the highest average scores were from students whose families made upwards of $200,000.

The College Board has attempted to rectify the situation by rolling out an adversity score for the SAT which faced significant controversy for attempting to quantify, on a scale of 1-100, the adversities students had faced. It later would roll out Landscape which would attempt to contextualize a student’s performance by looking at factors such as neighborhood crime rate and senior class size. The CEO of the ACT has spoken out against use of an adversity score. Stating the ACT “will not follow the College Board’s example.” This is not the first time the College Board has attempted to roll out an attempt at the quantification of adversity. A few decades ago, the College Board created the Strivers program which used several variables to predict SAT scores and students whose actual scores exceeded the predicted scores for their socioeconomic and school background by 200 points or more were called “Strivers.”

Both the SAT and ACT have stated that they make fee waivers available for low-income students and also have collaborated with organizations for free resources such as Khan Academy’s SAT Course Videos and ACT Academy. While these may be helpful resources, this is still not enough to help bridge the gap. That’s for a number of reasons:

  • Cost of Test and Retakes: Many students will take the SAT or ACT more than once to earn a competitive score. This puts low-income students at a disadvantage as they would need to earn a competitive score right out of the gate. It is not uncommon, in some circles more than others, to have students take the ACT each year since 8th grade and delete test records. The process to do so is surprisingly easy as well and permanently removes bad test scores from your record, but it also only applies to scores you paid for yourself (not school sponsored). So how much of an indicator of academic success is that 35 really?
  • Academic Support: Funding disparities and disparities in public and private institutions give some students innate advantages in the college application and standardized test-taking process. Not to mention private schools also come with equivalent social capital that is undeniably helpful for success.
  • Internet and Resource Accessibility: Resources are not only more accessible in affluent areas, but are also provided from early-on in a student’s educational career. Furthermore, while there are many great resources to study online many low-income students or students from underserved areas do not have reliable internet connections. As evidence by recent issues with AP testing, there are also infrastructure issues that may be at play as well.

All that considered, however, how can students from FLI backgrounds get into college without standardized testing? Some of the key factors currently considered in a college application include extracurricular involvements, letters of recommendation and demonstrated interest, college essay and GPA.

Now, I have to ask, who do you think has more time, social capital, and resources to start something like a non-profit at the ripe age of 17 (something that will show the buzzwords of initiative, leadership and innovation to a college)? Would it be the student from an affluent background whose parents went to the college they hope to attend without fear of having to save for college or the student who has to work 2 jobs to support their family and has little to no access to resources that can guide them to getting selected by top schools that offer good financial aid packages? The answer is clear. Students in middle income brackets also suffer as a result of this as well. It is expected of them to preform adequately well, but their resources are fractional compared to the upper income brackets.

Letters of recommendation may be adequate, but it’s more likely, purely anecdotally, that counselors that have to write letters for 15 students (and know the system) will be able to craft more compelling letters than a counselor tasked with letters for 500 students in an underserved community. Then there is the matter of demonstrated interest. That requires a student to be emailing, going to events and even visiting the school that they want to go to. Again, this all requires time and a whole lot of money-resources that are especially scarce for FLI students. Even the infamous “College Essay” can be improved and skillfully curated with sufficient funds.

There are more structural barriers in place to a fair college admissions process than just standardized testing. What’s fair about a systemic inequality? All factors considered in college admissions currently considered place students from FLI backgrounds at a disadvantage from the start. Students from these backgrounds have to prove themselves over and over with stellar GPAs, test scores that defy the odds, and extracurriculars they most certainly had to sacrifice a lot to make time for. The discrepancies are clearly systemic. Underfunded public schools in low-income communities should be the target of governmental assistance (and not just monetarily). Yet, how can we begin to level a playing field that has been irrevocably damaged from the start?