Higher Ed Groups Call On U.S. News To Stop Using SAT/ACT Scores In Its College Rankings

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Monday, July 12, 2021

Several higher education policy and advocacy groups are calling on U.S. News to end its practice of using average SAT and ACT scores of incoming students as part of its annual rankings of America’s best colleges.

The call comes in An Open Letter to The Editors of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings, which can be read in its entirety in a blog published today by New America, the D.C.-based think tank. The letter was initiated by New America’s Higher Education Team, which has a well-established history of raising concerns about both standardized admissions tests and the harmful consequences of college ranking schemes.

Acknowledging that the U.S. News rankings have “been the leading college rankings publication for years, and its impact on consumers and institutions alike cannot be overstated,” the group contends that because the pandemic has made it “difficult if not impossible for many to take the SAT or ACT” and because an increase in test-blind and test-optional admissions policies makes it difficult to compare institutions on the basis of test scores, institutions should no longer be rated using such metrics.

But beyond these practical difficulties, the group lists several other objections to the continued use of standardized admissions tests to grade colleges, including:

  1. Standardized admissions test scores don’t address institutional quality; they only help quantify how selective a colleges admissions process is. 
  2. SAT and ACT scores aren’t reliable predictors of students’ performance in college.
  3. Standardized admission tests disadvantage low-income students and students of color who are less likely than high-income and predominantly white students to be able to hire private tutors or take the exams multiple times to boost their scores.
  4. Continuing to use test scores in the rankings of colleges perpetuates a “gatekeeping tactic” that harms racial and socioeconomic equity in higher education.
  5. Using the ACT and SAT has a perverse effect on institutions when they shift their financial aid away from helping students with the greatest financial need to rewarding those with the highest test scores as a way to buy higher average scores for admitted students in order to improve their rankings.

The letter also claims that public opinion is on the side of ending the use of standardized admissions test scores. “A nationally-representative survey from New America shows that two-thirds of Americans agree with colleges’ decision to go test-blind and test-optional this year. Of those who agreed, around half say that institutions should remain test-optional or never use standardized admissions test scores in the future. Just 7 percent say that standardized admissions test scores should factor heavily in admissions decisions going forward.”

The letter concludes, “As Best Colleges continues to be influential in the decision-making process for students and families, there needs to be more integrity in the data inputs and methodology and a good start would be removing the average SAT and ACT score category from the rankings methodology. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to criticize this practice. But with the many challenges students and colleges have faced during the pandemic, removing standardized admissions test scores is simply the right thing to do.”

Among those signing the letter were a number of organizations that have long advocated for greater and more fair access to higher education, including FairTestUSC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and PracticeEd TrustuAspireNACACThe Institute for College Access & SuccessInstitute for Higher Education PolicyThe Hope CenterStudent Voice, and Young Invincibles. It also includes a petition, which can be signed onto by others who object to the use of standardized tests for college ranking purposes.

U.S. News has shown some sensitivity to the standardized testing issue. In its 2021 rankings, it included - for the first time - schools that didn’t use the SAT or ACT in their admissions decisions. Since the 2008 edition of Best Colleges, these test-blind schools had been automatically excluded from the overall rankings and categorized as "Unranked."  

According to U.S. News, it made that change “because prospective students and their families want to know the academic quality of all schools, including ones that do not make use of standardized test scores. Also, in recent years a large number of colleges have changed their application requirements regarding the SAT and ACT.” 

The move was also an acknowledgement that the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted administration of the SAT and ACT to such an extent that many colleges had at least temporarily stopped using them or moved to being test-optional. Consequently, the decision was made “to end the use of standardized tests in admissions decisions as a requirement for inclusion in the rankings.”

That’s a significant concession, but it’s not what the authors of today’s letter are seeking, particularly given that U.S. News still penalizes test-blind colleges by automatically assigning  them an average SAT score "equal to the lowest test score by a ranked school in their category," according to its methodology for the 2021 rankings. Think of it as an arbitrary bogey.

And it won’t satisfy the growing ranks of higher education experts who are increasingly vocal in their criticisms of what they see as the pernicious effects of standardized admissions tests. As Stephen Burd, a senior writer and editor with New America’s Eduction Policy program told me, “Using high school SAT scores to evaluate colleges has never made sense unless the rankings were rigged from the start to ensure that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are always at the top of the list. But doing so makes even less sense now, when so few students have been able to take the tests and so many colleges have gone test optional or test blind. We hope that the editors at US News recognize that it is time for a change.”

Whether this call for U.S. News to stop using standardized test scores in its methodology will be successful is an open question. On the one hand, the anti-test movement has gained momentum for several reasons. But arrayed against still are a number of forces - including buy-in from colleges and universities themselves - that remain preoccupied with the false academic meritocracy that standardized tests help perpetuate.

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Story by: Michael T.  Nietzel