What would happen if college admission was based solely on SAT scores?
Admitting on test scores alone do not produce fairer results. Source: Shutterstock

That’s the question answered by a recent report by the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

Here’s what they found after analysing data of prospective college students from 2013 who reported SAT or ACT scores: No one with an SAT or SAT-equivalent score below 1250 would have been admitted to the 200 most selective colleges and universities.

” … if all students were admitted solely on the basis of their test scores and no new seats were added, 53 percent of incoming students at the nation’s most selective colleges would no longer be attending,” the report said.

“More than half of the students who would be ousted are affluent students—from families in the top quartile of socioeconomic status (SES).”

Socioeconomic status is defined as “a combination of household income, educational attainment, and occupational prestige (a measure of social standing, power, and earnings ability)”. The top quartile refers to families with a median annual household income of US$122,000 among families with college-age children.

The report suggests that these affluent students who scored below the median SAT score are “disproportionately taking seats that might have otherwise gone to students with higher test scores”.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of this lower-scoring affluent students were found to be White too. This is the case even though among students with test scores below 1250, students from the bottom three SES quartiles have the same median scores (1140) with the students in the top SES quartile.

“When faced with equally prepared candidates for admission, it appears that affluent students will usually get the nod,” the report said.

The findings also suggest that affirmative action may not be benefiting lower-income black and Latino students as much as “public discourse had led some to believe,” Anthony Carnevale, CEW’s director and the report’s lead author, said in a statement. Only 27 percent of lower-scoring students enrolled at selective universities were black or Latino, while 57 percent were white.

What’s fairer: Using test scores or not?

Many factors beyond standardised test scores – which several top universities have dropped as a requirement – and GPAs determine whether a student gets into a college or not. Metrics like the admission essay, “demonstrated interest” in a particular school, their “ability to pay,” are some of what admissions officers say are increasingly promoted today in the US college landscape.

CEW’s findings were published as the organisation that administers the SAT, the College Board, is reportedly laying the groundwork to introduce a new adversity score to capture the socioeconomic profile of every student. It also comes in the wake of the college admissions scandal where Hollywood celebrities and high-profile individuals were charged with bribing or influencing undergraduate admissions decisions at several top American universities.

So what happens when we use a seemingly more meritocratic approach like standardised test scores? Theoretically, if all students take the same test under the same conditions, the best and the brightest will emerge.

But that’s not the case, as the report found. Instead, more students from more aristocratic backgrounds would be admitted instead. The percentage of incoming freshmen at selective colleges from the top quartile of family SES would increase from 60 to 63 percent. It affirms what many of us have long known anecdotally: Children from wealthier families, who can afford better teachers, AP courses and college counselors, are better positioned to score higher.

According to The Princeton Review, Providence College has the lowest race and class interaction in the US. Source: Shutterstock

Admitting students based on standardised test scores alone would notably decrease racial diversity too, the report found.

“The White enrollment would grow by about 14 percent. Meanwhile, the combined Black and
Latino enrollment at selective colleges would be reduced by 43 percent, and Asian enrollment would
decline as well—by about nine percent,” the report explained.

Carnevale said: “In the wake of the college admissions scandal, our thought experiment tested whether removing legacy and social capital from the admissions equation would have a more equitable outcome.”

“But a test-only admissions policy would only further privilege in the higher education system.”

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