There are few topics in college access and higher education that inspire as much conviction from opposing sides as standardized tests.

Over the last few years, many people have come to believe that such tests are at the root of education inequity.

Opponents of tests have argued that removing tests from college admissions is the primary way to expand access.

Those beliefs, combined with the banal reality that few people like the tests — whether it’s the students studying for them, the parents paying for test prep or institutions being called out for using them in admissions — have made tests a perfect target.

But tests are not the single source of inequity, their elimination is not the cure and likability is not the criterion upon which the future of American education should rest. While I did not like taking a Covid test or the unmistakably pink line it summoned right before my planned vacation, the test was a meaningful predictor of what was to come, as well as where I had been.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Test-optional policies didn’t do much to diversify college student populations

Today, because many colleges and universities across the country no longer require students to include SAT or ACT scores in their applications, there’s a perception among some students that including test scores adds no additional value.

And yet, in the class of 2023, 1.9 million students took the SAT at least once, while 1.4 million took the ACT. Millions of students still take the SAT and ACT and choose to include their scores as one more way to stand out in admissions.

However, fewer students from lower-income backgrounds are taking these tests than in years past. The College Board reported that in 2022 only 22 percent of test-takers were from families earning less than $67,084 annually — a steep decline from 43 percent six years earlier. In contrast, from 2016 to 2022, the percentage of test-takers from wealthy households grew slightly or stayed about the same.

A clear pattern has emerged in which two groups — one wealthy and one not — have responded to test-optional policies in disparate ways. The middle and upper class opt in, and the others opt out. Publicly available information from various colleges compiled by Compass Education Group shows that students who submit scores have a higher rate of acceptance than those who don’t.

If these tests supposedly no longer matter, why are privileged students using them as a competitive advantage — while underrepresented students opt out?

We now have evidence that standardized tests in fact may help — not hurt — students from low-income families and underrepresented minority groups get into and persist in college. The latest research shows that not only are test scores as predictive or even more predictive than high school grades of college performance, they are also strong predictors of post-college outcomes.

Therefore, earning and reporting high test scores should boost acceptance odds for students from under-resourced high schools and communities, since admissions officers seek data that indicates a student can keep up with the academic rigor at their institutions. Reporting higher scores can be the difference between attending a two- or a four-year college, where chances of persistence and graduation are exponentially higher.

Furthermore, for thousands of high-schoolers, these tests are not optional — and this has nothing to do with the admission policies of colleges and universities.

Many states and school districts in the U.S. use the SAT and ACT tests as part of their high school graduation requirements, accountability and evaluation systems.

These states and systems rely on the tests because they are a standardized way to tell whether students across a variety of districts — rich, poor; big, small; urban, rural — are ready for postsecondary success.

Many educators believe that standardized tests flatten such variables by placing everyone on the same scale — that they are, in fact, more equitable than the alternatives.

Yes, there are score gaps by race and class. However, standardized tests did not cause these realities — the unfairness associated with them is symptomatic of the broader inequalities that permeate education and all aspects of our society.

Related: OPINION: The charade of ‘test-optional’ admissions

The SAT and ACT measure a student’s mastery of fundamentals, including the English and math skills they should be learning in K-12. The unfairness lies in the fact that wealthier students often attend better schools and can afford to pay for extracurricular test preparation, which reinforces their schoolwork and often comes with valuable counseling. In doing so, they increase their confidence as well their motivation. All these things also help prepare students for life, not simply a test.

Rather than target our rage at tests that consistently deliver bad news, let’s focus our energies on preparing all students to do well on these tests so that they know that college is within their reach, and they are prepared to succeed when they get there.

We must embed test preparation in the school day for all students, not just a select few, all across America. We should work with teachers to ensure they are prepared to deliver high-quality instruction that reinforces what students learn in class and enables them to achieve scores that will unlock a myriad of opportunities.

There are models for this. Advanced Placement classes, for example, prepare students for tests that specifically help them become more competitive in admissions and earn college credit, allowing them to save time and money in college. (Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, this advantage, too, is often unavailable in many under-resourced schools and districts.) We can and should create a similar but more equitable model for college entrance exams.

As we begin 2024, let’s adopt a fresh and nuanced perspective on standardized tests so that all students can use them to their advantage — to be prepared for and succeed on the tests and, ultimately, in college and beyond.

Yoon S. Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that provides in-school test preparation to districts in high-poverty neighborhoods, working with and through teachers to ensure they can deliver high-quality instruction that prepares students for standardized tests.

This story about standardized tests was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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