Claire Fiddian-Green: Study: Standardized tests are useful in admissions

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College graduates have higher annual incomes, better health outcomes and greater rates of civic engagement than do adults without a postsecondary degree. Yet significant racial and income disparities persist in college access, preventing too many people from realizing these advantages.

In 2021, Black and Hispanic or Latino high school graduates in Marion County were less likely to enroll in college than their peers, with 45% of Black graduates and 38% of Hispanic and Latino graduates enrolling, compared with 63% of Asian graduates and 52% of white graduates. Additionally, 39% of graduates from low-income households enrolled in college, compared with 55% of their higher-income peers.

Fortunately, Indiana is taking steps to reduce these disparities, such as increasing access to rigorous college-prep coursework for more high school students. One recent policy change—automatic enrollment in Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program—will also make a difference. The program covers the cost of tuition at Indiana’s public institutions for students from low-income households who meet GPA and other established criteria, and it’s closing enrollment gaps statewide. A remarkable 88% of scholars from every racial or ethnic group enroll in college after high school.

However, the college admissions process itself presents a challenge when it comes to ensuring more students of color and students from low-income households successfully enroll in college.

College admissions is complex, considering factors like grades, extracurricular activities and standardized tests. While grades have traditionally been seen as a reliable indicator of academic performance, grade inflation—coupled with the varying rigor of high school curricula—has made them increasingly unreliable. Extracurricular activities, which display a student’s interests and leadership skills, are not equally accessible—with some studies showing participation disparities for students as young as kindergarten.

Standardized tests such as the SAT have historically served as a benchmark for college admissions as well. However, during the pandemic, many colleges adopted “test optional” policies, and few have reversed course. This has been hailed by some advocates as a win, citing racial and socioeconomic performance disparities on these tests.

However, a new study from Harvard University’s Raj Chetty, et al., reveals intriguing findings. The evidence suggests that standardized tests like the SAT offer a more complete view of a student’s likelihood of excelling in college. This is, in part, because factors like extracurricular activities and essays might present more significant racial and socioeconomic biases. Affluent students are more likely to participate in costly extracurriculars and attend private schools where counselors play a key role in essays and applications.

While there’s no denying performance gaps by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status exist, research shows standardized test scores can help college admissions counselors better identify underrepresented students who can thrive.

Consider the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s approach: It has upheld rigorous test requirements and achieved strong success in diversifying its student body through a holistic admissions approach. In a recent New York Times article, MIT officials emphasized that standardized test scores are not a main factor in enrollment decisions. Instead, they find them useful in identifying promising students from less advantaged backgrounds or schools. With the test requirement reinstated after a two-year pause, MIT admitted its most diverse class ever.

Addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities in college admissions is a critical step toward unlocking the full potential of our society, ensuring more Americans benefit from the many advantages a college degree confers and helping to address persistent skills gaps plaguing employers. One practice we should consider is the continued use of standardized tests in the college admissions process.•

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Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, whose mission is to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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