Why the SAT and ACT aren’t going away anytime soon

Cheating on the SAT and in Athletic Recruitment

The recent celebrity college scam is a major black eye for America’s higher education system. Between the scandal and the seemingly never ending rise in costs, the system has gained a number of detractors. Despite the doubts some may have, higher education does pay, as studies show the income gap persists. More education leads to higher average earnings. So, how can the higher education system ensure everyone has equal access? Critics say  the first step is to end the SAT and ACT. However, they might just be the best and fairest way available to determine college readiness.

When the University of Chicago, ranked number 3 on the U.S. News and World report list of best colleges, dropped the SAT/ACT as part of their requirements, supporters of ending the tests cheered. They are part of a growing list of institutions of higher education who are dropping the SAT’S and ACT’s. According to FairTest, there are more than 700 American 4-year colleges and universities that are test optional. They also note that, “more than a quarter of the nation’s accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions admit substantial percentages of their first-year classes without using the SAT I or ACT.”


Many cheer this news and look forward to the day when the multi-billion dollar testing industry will cease to exist. Few people, if any, believe that the tests are a perfect way to judge students. However, a better system for judging students has yet to be developed. The SAT/ACT offer a way to objectively look at a student’s ability.

Some argue that while the SAT/ACT are subjective, they are not fair. After all, wealthy families can afford to pay for private tutors or preparatory classes that give their children a leg up. This does indeed provide such students an advantage. However, as the recent scandal proves yet again, the wealthy can find ways around any system if they are willing to use their means in nefarious ways.

There are hundreds of SAT/ACT books available that just about anyone can afford. Plus, there are free websites that students can utilize to improve their skills. While this is not equivalent to private tutors and classes, there is at least opportunity for all. On a side note, high schools that serve populations who can not afford extra paid help for the SAT/ACT could consider having classes to prepare students for the test. After all, if the schools truly want to prepare students to move forward, they would help them maximize their SAT/ACT. This would enable students to have a better chance to get into colleges/universities that are equivalent to their skill level.


Nearly 70% of the students who graduated from high school between January and October 2016 enrolled in college. This is a 7% increase since 1993. In addition to the increase in student enrollment, there is a significant increase in the number of schools that students apply to. According to INSIDE Higher Ed, “in 2005, 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to at least seven schools. That number doubled to 36% by 2015.” UCLA became the first school to receive over 100,000 applications in a single year.

Imagine you are part of a schools’ committee to determine eligibility. Surely, you would be overwhelmed with numbers like these. If UCLA had full time admissions staff spending two hours on every application for four months, they’d need to hire approximately 160 people just to go through those admissions. While this might sound reasonable , would the resultant raise in tuition to pay the salaries of the staff also be okay?


There has to be a  way to distinguish students. The tests are used as a way to wean out students. And this occurs at schools of all types. A former employee in an Ivy League admissions office says, “…the first thing I saw when I opened up an application to read or make an admissions decision on, was the student’s test scores. It dictated how much time we would spend on that application and the likelihood of admission.”


This reality may be upsetting. We have all heard that schools consider the whole student and that test scores are part of a larger picture. This is indeed true. The Ivy League admissions employee notes in her article that the test score was just the beginning of the process. Just how important test scores are in the process is not clear and surely depends upon the school and the number of applications.

Many contend that GPA should be the determining factor in determining whether a student has the academic chops to make the grade. After all, the argument goes, the SAT/ACT is a one time (or two or three…) shot and any host of factors could have prevented a student from getting a grade that is an accurate indicator of his/her skill level. GPA are an indicator of a students effort and dedication over the course of years. Plus, there ar tests show that GPA is the best indicator of success at college/university.

So, why bother requiring students take the SAT/ACT? Unlike the tests, GPA is subjective. Teachers, grading systems, etc. are not standardized.  An A in one school does not necessarily equate to an A in another school or even in the same school. Grade inflation is already rampant in wealthier school districts and private schools. Imagine if GPA was the number one factor in determining whether or not a student got into college. The pressure on all parties – students, teachers, administrators – would be enormous. Implement such a scenario, and the number of grading scandals would skyrocket.

Perhaps, an interview might serve as a replacement as some schools already require this. Like other elements, the interview can be gamed. Students can be prepared by professionals to ensure they’re ready to put their best foot forward. It would also serve as a burden to colleges/universities due to the time requirement. If students had to travel to multiple interviews, a financial burden would be incurred.

Students are required to write an essay as part of the application process. The purpose of the essay is to give the college/university insights into the individual beyond what can be seen in grades and other static information on a screen. While it is not stated, the essay also gives admission officers a chance to consider a student’s writing capabilities. Once again, there are paid services available to help students with their essay and make sure they put their best foot forward. The level of ‘help’ varies as there are tutors who will simply write the paper. This can render the essay nearly useless.

With these thoughts in mind, the SAT/ACT may seem more reasonable. Therefore, the question changes to the quality of the test itself. Critics insist that there is a bias in the tests, and there’s a significant amount of literature on this topic. The bias favors male Caucasians as they score the highest. There is also a race gap. Other factors could also be at play as to why certain groups, on average, score higher than others. However, this does not mean the test should be tossed out. Colleges/universities could take the differential into account when reviewing scores of applicants and allow for lower scores of groups who face bias.


College/universities are in tumultuous times. One Harvard Business School Professor went so far as to predict that half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Few go as far as Professor Christensen, yet many do predict a significant amount of school closings. Closings are already occurring, and it’s not just for profit colleges that are shuttering their doors. The closings (those to date and the predictions) are happening for a host of reasons including fewer applicants due to economic conditions and a shrinking population of college age students.

Elite schools – including the University of Chicago – are not facing a crisis. The reputation of such schools is cemented, and test scores are not needed to demonstrate this. For other schools who are striving to improve their rankings on lists like the US News and World Report, test scores are important. Higher rankings can be a lifeboat to those schools who are concerned about their long term viability as it ultimately leads to more students.  And how do colleges/universities rise up in the rankings? Two of the most influential factors are the average SAT/ACT scores of incoming freshmen, and how selective the college is (ie. how high the school’s rejection rate is). Acceptance rates can be misleading, as colleges and universities work hard to improve this. SAT/ACT test scores, on the other hand, can not be easily distorted.

On the flip side, schools that are not at all competitive can also benefit from dropping the SAT/ACT. Again, the goal for colleges/universities is to increase applications and ultimately enrollment. For non-competitive schools, having the SAT/ACT as a factor is pointless. It can serve as a detractor to students who are considering the university. It’s those schools in the middle for which the SAT/ACT is necessary. Again, they are trying to distinguish themselves, and one way to do that is to rise up in the rankings making them more attractive to potential applicants.

The SAT/ACT tests are far from perfect. Despite their obvious flaws, they serve a practical purpose. They offer colleges/universities a quick uniform way to gain a sense of a student’s academic level. It is certainly not a complete picture. Plus, the test can be gamed by those with means just as every other alternative can. Currently, it is the least bad solution and getting rid of the SAT/ACT would make the issues that already exist even worse. Besides the best indicator of success at college/university is when GPA and SAT/ACT scores are combined. So, get those SAT/ACT prep books, find your favorite website, and strive to do the best you can. The tests are not going anywhere anytime soon.