College admissions tests are a poor indicator of college readiness

December 19, 2019

College Access Plan's SAT prep class at John Muir High School in Pasadena

My nonprofit organization is dedicated to supporting low-income, of color, and first-generation college-going students to successfully attain their Bachelor’s degree and beyond.

Mo Hyman

Facing a lack of good SAT and ACT preparation options specifically designed for these students, we invested heavily in developing our own research-based test prep program.

We have successfully taught dozens of test prep courses to hundreds of students and regularly support students who increase their scores, sometimes dramatically.

But our research and practice keep revealing the same hard truth: The SAT and ACT tests are a poor indicator of college readiness and a barrier to college access for diverse student populations.

It is time to end their use as a requisite for four-year college admissions.

For this reason, my organization and other college access organizations, school districts, and individual students are all participating in a civil rights action to demand that the UC system end the use of SAT and ACT tests as an admissions requirement.

Our participation in this action is not meant to be antagonistic to the UC, but instead stems from our deep respect for the UC system as an engine for intellectual development and economic mobility.

SAT and ACT tests — and the time-consuming classes designed to prepare students to take them — do not help young people succeed in college nor develop their character. Instead of predicting college performance, the one thing these tests consistently correlate with is wealth.

This truth should come as no surprise to parents who have had to pay for expensive test prep classes or who hunted for scholarships and low- or no-cost test prep options. High-achieving, low-income students are half as likely as more affluent students to take SAT and ACT prep courses.

Wealth is not the only inequality that gets magnified by the SAT and ACT exams. When they walk into the testing room, students of color experience stereotype threat that is damaging to their test scores and their well-being. Studies show that extended exposure to trauma and other adverse life experiences — including poverty and discrimination — dampens students’ performance on timed tests.

English learners are hard-pressed to demonstrate their merit on these exams, even in the math section, which relies heavily on word problems. Taken together, all these factors mean that the tests place students like those who attend our test prep programs at a disadvantage relative to their equally qualified but more socioeconomically privileged peers.

To understand the arbitrariness of the SAT and ACT as an admissions factor, consider Samir and Jay (names have been changed), best friends and alumni of our program from the class of 2018.

Both were low-income, first-generation college-going students with 4.0 GPAs, engineering-focused extracurriculars, and ‘A’s in AP Calculus. Where they differed was in their SAT scores: Samir was a recent immigrant to the United States who worked diligently at test prep, but in the end Jay’s scores were 180 points higher.

Both Samir and Jay applied as engineering majors to four UCs — the maximum number of campuses where a student can use a waiver for application fees. Jay was accepted to three UC schools and waitlisted at the fourth; Samir was rejected from all four UCs where he applied.

Though it is impossible to know the full reasoning of the admissions officers, as college readiness experts, we do know that these young men’s portfolios looked similar in every material way aside from their SAT scores.

The good news is students, parents, college admissions professionals, and organizations dedicated to improving higher education access are striving to end the use of these tests as a requirement for admission to four-year colleges.

Many colleges, including prestigious institutions like the University of Chicago, have created alternative admissions plans that enable students to prepare admissions portfolios that do not include these tests.

It is time for the University of California to make a similar bold choice.

Given that the research around these tests consistently illustrates that they are a poor measure of a student’s ability to perform, we at the College Access Plan (CAP) believe that ending the use of these tests in admissions decisions is not just a matter of shifting policy but rather is a matter of equal protection under the law and advancement of the public good.

Currently, the UC system — and most UC schools — still struggles to admit freshman classes that truly represent the diversity of the state we live in. The use of SAT/ACT in admissions plays an outsized role in this struggle.

The UCs prepare California’s future leaders in academia, in industry, and in public service. It is our hope that this civil rights action to end UC’s use of admissions tests will help UC officials to align with the system’s vision to recruit and educate California’s best and brightest from all backgrounds.

A more diverse UC student body means a better California for us all.


Mo Hyman is the executive director of the College Access Plan, a nonprofit that prepares underserved students to succeed in college.

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