Colleges may want to start looking at ways to reduce reliance on standardized test scores that disproportionately impact minorities and low-income students.

As the Supreme Court continues to narrow the way race can be used in the admission process, this can be a progressive way of enhancing college diversity.

“For high-achieving students, a good score can open the doors to some of the world’s most elite institutions, wealthy alumni networks and prestigious job opportunities. A low score threatens to close those doors forever.” — John Brittain, professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, and Benjamin Landy, homepage editor at and former policy associate at TCF.

It is such a sad reality that “we overinvest in so-called objective test scores, imbuing point differentials with predictive utility and validity well beyond reason, as is obvious when one tries to tease out the differences in life achievement for students all clustered in the middle of an already above-average test range,” write Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot in The Future of Affirmative Action.

Test Scores versus Grade Point Average

High school grades can be used as a better predictor of college outcomes versus standardized test scores, regardless of variation in school’s quality or grading standards.

Although it is rarely discussed, the College Board’s own research even proves that the SAT is as much correlated with socioeconomic status (SES) as undergraduate outcomes, and SAT scores add little predictive validity beyond what students’ high school records already indicate, state Brittian and Landy.

This raises a number of questions:

  • Is it possible for colleges to reduce reliance on test scores without sacrificing their academic quality?

  • To what degree do standardized tests predict undergraduate success?

  • If high achieving minority and low-income students score lower on the SAT and ACT, can they still succeed in a more competitive educational environment?

In Future, Brittain and Landy reference different studies that investigate the relationship between standardized testing, socioeconomic status, high school grades, and undergraduate performance.

For example, Princeton University researchers Sunny X. Niu and Marta Tienda examined the Texas Ten Percent Plan (TTP) finding that black and Hispanic students admitted through the plan “consistently performed well or better” than white students.

Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices, in their 2007 analysis of UC data, find that high school GPA is a better predictor of undergraduate success than SAT scores.

The hard truth is that granting one candidate a seat means keeping another one out.

Furthermore, increased racial and socioeconomic diversity can be achieved by switching to test-optional admissions policies while keeping the overall academic quality much the same, according to the results from a statistical model created by Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Young Chung to predict the effects of colleges adopting a test-optional admissions policy.

Overall, almost all of the studies mentioned have reached the same conclusion: reducing the reliance on test scores would have little to no impact on students’ college GPA or graduation rate.

Covert Discrimination

The more colleges emphasize the SAT, the richer and whiter their matriculating class is, according to Brittain and Landy.

While standardized testing may seem neutral on the surface, it is actually discriminatory in effect. Notably, there is a disproportionate adverse impact on black and Hispanic students—including students of all races that come from low-income families.

Standardized testing can be seen as a game used to weed out applicants.

The entire aim of the SAT is to rank students against one another and it will continue to be that way.

White and affluent students typically have greater access to educational opportunities, including expensive test preparation services, so they typically win at the game of standardized testing.

On the other hand, high-achieving minorities and low-income students, many of whom live in concentrated areas of poverty and have less-educated parents, usually fall short.

“The hard truth is that granting one candidate a seat at [selective] institutions means keeping another one out, and some mechanism is needed for selection among the candidates,” notes education scholar Rebecca Zwick.

Unfortunately, standardized testing accomplishes this goal at no cost to the college, by instead placing the burden on students and their families.

Standardized Testing Reform

To increase opportunity, the $4 billion-a-year testing industry, for the first time since 2005, made changes to the SAT in March of 2014 by eliminating questions on arcane vocabulary, focusing its math questions on key areas, and removing the penalty for wrong answers.

In addition, initiatives to provide college application fee waivers for income-eligible students and free test preparation materials are being put forth, write Brittain and Landy.

Looking at the surface of the proposed changes, it seems as though the test has made progress.

However, the College Board is actually proposing an even more complicated test. “There are more things being tested with the College Board wanting to integrate different types of learning,” said Miro Kazakoff, chief executive officer at Testive.

Brittian and Landy suggest that even with the new changes, the design on the test will still result in a racial and socioeconomic gap not reflective of either students’ high school achievement or predicted undergraduate success.

This ultimately hinders thousands of “otherwise qualified minority and low-income students from joining the ranks of the nation’s educational elite,” they write.

At the end of the day the underlying purpose of the SAT will remain the same.

“What won’t change with the College Board’s latest SAT version is its basic purpose. The entire aim of the SAT is to rank students against one another and will continue to be that way,” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, creator of The College Solution.

Read the new volume, The Future of Affirmative Action for more information. Also, we’ve compiled a round-up of recent commentary on the topic, including a writeup on affirmative action’s future.