A couple of months ago, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted to keep the system’s admissions process “test optional” through the fall of 2024. University leaders said that to do otherwise in the aftermath of COVID-19 would be unfair to students and harmful to UNC’s constituent campuses.
If you squint really hard, you may detect some validity to this claim. But I recommend going into the next two years with eyes wide open. Political activists have been trying for decades to get rid of standardized testing as a major factor in college admissions. They will pressure UNC to make what is now a four-year suspension of the test-score requirement into a permanent abolition.
Critics of requiring SAT or ACT scores from prospective students have long made two arguments. First, they argue that standardized tests are biased against non-white and low-income students. Second, they argue that test scores aren’t necessary to make good admissions decisions because grade-point average (GPA) is the best predictor of college success.
The first argument is incorrect. There are significant gaps in average scores between low-income test-takers and other students, and among various racial and ethnic groups. But these gaps are not by themselves evidence that the tests are biased. By high school, there are very real differences in academic preparation across these categories. For the most part, standardized tests are reporting these differences, not causing them.
That’s what the preponderance of the empirical evidence shows. It’s also a logical conclusion to draw from the fact that students of Asian descent, for example, tend to have significantly higher average test scores than white students do. Are the SAT and ACT culturally biased in favor of Asians, including many who are first- or second-generation Americans? Of course not.
There’s stronger support for the second argument against standardized tests, that GPAs are better at predicting performance in college. Research findings differ, but generally speaking the correlation between GPAs and college success is a bit stronger than the one between test scores and college success. That may well be because GPAs reflect years of study, writing, and test-taking while an ACT or SAT score reflects student performance at a single (often stressful) point in time.
Still, if the goal is to predict accurately how high-school students will fare in college, there’s a better option that just relying on GPAs, which may in some cases be skewed by school location or grade inflation. What’s that option? Combining GPAs and test scores together, as admissions offices have been doing for decades.
Consider the findings of a 2019 study in the American Educational Research Journal. The authors concluded that grades were a good predictor because they signified forms of self-discipline likely to boost student success in both high school and college. “Affirmation of the relevance of teacher-assigned grades, however, is not an indictment of standardized admissions tests,” they stated. “In our investigation, test scores added unique predictive power, over and above grades and demographic characteristics, for college graduation.”
A 2021 study published in the journal Educational Assessment also found that “institutions could better predict undergraduate academic performance when using [GPA] and standardized test scores together than when using [GPA] alone.”
As American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess points out, the elimination of test scores from the admissions process is unlikely to result in a laser-like focus on grades, anyway. What would happen instead is a rise in the importance of other factors — essays, letters of recommendations, and lists of extracurricular activities — that can be difficult to compare fairly and that may even work to the advantage of well-off students with comparatively poor study habits.
COVID-19 certainly did disrupt both schooling and test preparation for many young North Carolinians. So I can understand why university leaders proposed the original suspension of test-score requirements in 2020, and why some think the suspension should last until 2024. But setting the precedent was itself risky. The rigor of the UNC system merits defense.