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Don’t use the SAT or ACT to undermine education accountability

Providing all students with the chance to take college admissions tests sounds like a logical way to pull disadvantaged students into the college pipeline.

Headshot of Pamela Burdman
Pamela Burdman

Unfortunately, the way state lawmakers are moving to do this is a huge mistake that will undermine accountability for excellence and equity. For several years, a number of school districts and others have been pressuring the state to administer the SAT or ACT in lieu of the Smarter Balanced tests in English Language Arts and math that all 11th graders are expected to take each spring.

Last year, the Legislature actually passed a bill to do just that, but it was vetoed by Gov. Brown. A new bill (AB 751) now moving quickly through the Assembly has brought the idea back into play.

There are so many reasons why this is wrong.

First, rather than measuring students’ learning or achievement, the admissions tests contribute to preserving an inequitable status quo. Their baked-in assumption is that student aptitude is distributed according to a bell curve. Test makers write and score questions to create that curve and rank-order students.

Headshot of Christopher Edley, Jr.
Christopher Edley, Jr.

State standards tests (like California’s Smarter Balanced test) have a wholly different purpose. They’re designed to evaluate schools by measuring whether students are meeting educational benchmarks established by state education policymakers. There is no artificially imposed curve, so it is theoretically possible for most or all students to earn high scores, signaling that schools are doing a good job of educating their students.

Second, doubling down on college admissions tests like the SAT flies in the face of consistent research showing that scores on these tests are weaker predictors of college performance than high-school grades. Moreover, demographic factors — including family income, parental education and race/ethnicity — explain a large proportion (39 percent) of the variance in SAT scores, according to a recent study of University of California applicants. Such factors don’t cause disparities in test scores, the study said, but are tied to other more proximate factors — like quality of school attended, availability of test prep services or stereotype threat — that do.

Likewise, SAT-type tests don’t cause inequality. They perpetuate it with a technical design that ensures, not intentionally, that the demographic distribution of scores is virtually identical from year to year. This hinders efforts by colleges to recruit a class that is racially and socioeconomically diverse.

Last week the College Board, owner of the SAT, went farther than ever to acknowledge publicly the uncomfortable influence of students’ background characteristics on test performance. It released a so-called “adversity index” intended to put SAT scores into context by characterizing the applicant’s school and neighborhood environment. The implication is that universities should weigh contextual factors in evaluating SAT scores — something they should already be doing because a person is not a test score. The new adversity index confirms the limitations of college admissions tests, undermining the idea that they could replace accountability tests.

A third problem: research makes clear that the SAT and ACT are more stratifying in terms of race and income than the Smarter Balanced test. Colleges should consider adopting more equitable tests. This is especially important in California, where affirmative action cannot be used to compensate for the test’s inherent inequities, and a UC task force is currently studying whether to move away from using the SAT in admissions.

Fourth: SAT-type tests won’t work as the measure we need for accountability. The state’s Smarter Balanced test, which the legislation would make optional in 11th grade, unlike the SAT, is based on the curriculum standards California and many other states now use.

It hard to imagine how policymakers or parents would compare high schools’ performance if some use Smarter Balanced and others use the SAT. And if students’ scores are to be taken in the context of their “adversity index,” what about schools? How would state policymakers weigh the scores of high schools with high adversity levels?

The bottom line is that no matter how well teachers teach and how much students learn, college admissions tests are calibrated to rank order students from the 0th percentile to the 99th. Admissions tests are designed to ration college opportunity, whereas Smarter Balanced is designed to ensure K-12 opportunity.

Helping more students take the SAT and ACT has merit. But that is something school districts can already choose to do — and several have — without undermining California’s school accountability system in the process.

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