Research tells us standardized admissions tests benefit under-represented students

April 9, 2020

We continue to hear arguments against the use of ACT and SAT scores in admission decisions at California universities.

Wayne Camara

Such arguments however ignore important facts: ACT and SAT scores benefit under-represented students, in particular, and college admissions decisions, in general, for University of California admissions.

As some institutions, including the UC system, make temporary adjustments to their admissions criteria to mitigate coronavirus impact on applications and enrollment, we’re reminding students and colleges of this fact.

In late January, the University of California Standardized Testing Task Force completed a yearlong review of testing as a college admissions tool. The comprehensive report made the following findings:

These findings should have laid to rest any talk about making test scores optional in the UC college admission process. Those who are continuing to make such arguments are focusing on myths, not facts. Some also continue to suggest that the ACT and SAT should be replaced in admissions by tests from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which are administered to 11th-graders in California’s public high schools and those in six other states.

The UC report specifically rejects the proposal to use Smarter Balanced as a replacement of the ACT and SAT, and we agree.

There are several problems with using Smarter Balanced for admissions, many of which revolve around access and test security. With only seven states participating in the Smarter Balanced Test Consortium, students in the other 43 states and the District of Columbia — plus California students who attend private schools or are home schooled — have no opportunity to take the exam. And even students who have access to Smarter Balanced tests have no opportunity to retest, which typically results in a moderate increase in test scores.

Additionally, the computer adaptive processes (tailored testing that is adaptive to each test-taker’s abilities) used in the Smarter Balanced tests are rudimentary, resulting in some students gaining unfair exposure to test questions in advance. The task force report points out other challenges in employing Smarter Balanced tests for high-stakes decisions and published data demonstrate that group differences on Smarter Balanced assessments mirror those on admissions tests and would have little to no impact on diversity.

Finally, there is the argument that the Smarter Balanced tests cover more content taught in California classrooms than the ACT or SAT. It’s worth noting that the testing time for the Smarter Balanced tests is 7.5 hours, requiring multiple days of testing and representing nearly double the time required by the ACT and SAT. With double the testing time, one can obviously cover more content.

But measuring lots of skills is less important than measuring the right skills — the ones that are most important in terms of college readiness, upon which the ACT focuses. What matters most, really, is the test’s ability to effectively predict college success. ACT and College Board research has yielded many studies that have demonstrated the validity and usefulness of the ACT and SAT for admissions decisions across all student groups. We believe that every student should have the tools, support and resources they need to succeed in college and their careers.

When properly used by considering the context of student experience, opportunities and other achievements, admissions tests lead to accurate and fair decisions. Our job as leaders in academia is to work and collaborate across all sectors and to level the playing field in college admissions so the dream of a higher education is within reach for all who seek it.


Wayne Camara is the Horace Mann Research Chair and Michelle Croft is a principal research scientist at ACT, which owns and administers the ACT test.

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