I have been encouraged recently at the prospect that using the SAT/ACT as a basis for college admissions may go out with a whimper.

It was never going to go out with a bang because the collective action problem aournd the structure of competition we’ve erected for institutions is too powerful, but as schools were forced into test-optional policies because of covid-related test cancellations, many have discovered you can fill a first-year student cohort without those scores just fine.

The entire University of California system is dumping the tests. A record number of institutions will be test-optional. The hold these tests and these scores have over the narrative around what’s meaningful in college admissions has been definitively broken. It seems unlikely to me that this mythos can now be resurrected, and the attempts of people who seem invested in maintaining the illusion around the utility of the SAT seem to be falling short. Matthew Yglesias published a piece at his Substack newsletter criticizing the “anti-SAT backlash” citing the work of UC-Berkeley professor Jesse Rothstein in an attempt to defend the utility of the SAT, only to have Prof. Rothstein go to Twitter to illuminate the things that Yglesias gets wrong. 

Pick a defense of using the SAT in admissions and Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University (which has also gone test-optional), has likely already dismantled it.

Probably more than once.

As seen in Eric Hoover’s recent article about St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, when it comes to non-selective institutions (which is the vast majority of U.S. postsecondary schools), the SAT is not necessary for admission decisions, and in reality, may be a barrier to schools finding as many possible candidates for enrollment as possible.

There are few if any compelling reasons to keep these tests around for the vast majority of schools and students, while there are numerous ones to ditch them. As the past year has demonstrated, whatever predictive power the tests may have is not sufficient to justify their continued use, and there’s little doubt that far more students experience them as a barrier than a gateway to opportunity.

Another plus would be to diminish the power and influence of the College Board, a billion dollar, pure rent seeking entity that in the words of Akil Bello, “operates as a nontransparent, unelected, unregulated, publicly funded federal regulator of K-12 curriculum and gatekeeper to higher education.”

Eliminating the use of these tests is also a blow to the U.S. News rankings. Everyone working inside of the higher education ecosystem already knows that this particular emperor has no clothes when it comes to judging the actual quality of education received at an institution, but perhaps the utter nakedness will be more apparent when there is no common metric by which to compare schools. 

I could go on and on, but I’m most excited about what moving past the SAT and ACT may do for how we rethink what students experience prior to college. It has always been in the best interests of post-secondary schools to learn more about prospective students, and not only for the purposes of admission. If these tests don’t exist, what could arise in their place?

Untethered from the SAT, St. Mary’s is now asking fundamental questions about the admission and enrollment process from the ground up. So far, by Hoover’s accounting, they’ve found this process productive, and a spur to bring institutional operations in line with their values.

While the SAT/ACT are viewed as proxies for student achievement and academic potential, we know that they are not really that, and are impossible to untangle from other systemic factors that influence scores. They actually tell us very little about students on either of those dimensions. In specific, they offer precisely zero qualitative data on student learning and student lives, and even more importantly, they are largely black boxes to students themselves, offering no opportunity for learning through reflection.

What if, and I’m just spitballin’ here, we had another source of information about student achievement and academic potential? What if that information came from a source very close to the student, someone who had been intimately involved with the student’s journey the entire way through school?

I’ll stop being coy. I’m talking about students themselves. In my experience, students are enormously knowledgeable about when, and what they’re learning. (Or when they’re not learning.) I say this because I require students to produce grade narratives at the end of the course that articulate what they experienced and what they learned, when someone asks what students now know, I can point to those artifacts. 

What if (still spitballin’) students applied to college with a portfolio of these learning narratives that both articulate what students have learned, and demonstrate a student’s particular orientation towards their own academic goals? 

What if, rather than being part of an edtech product or learning management system which administrators go sniffing around for evidence of something or other, these were things that students controlled themselves with the ability to share at their own discretion?

What if our tools of assessment were tools of learning, rather than tools of judgment and sorting? 

All of this is eminently doable, but it does require embracing a different set of values around how we view students and their work, as well as how students view their own work in the context of school. It requires privileging student agency and freedom over institutional surveillance and control. It means making sure that all post-secondary institutions are well resourced so the competition for access to opportunity is less fraught. 

Five years ago no one would’ve thought the SAT/ACT would ever fade to irrelevance, so I’m going to choose to believe that these other steps are possible too.

Maybe even inevitable.


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