Dive Brief:

  • A dozen groups and individuals in higher education are pressing U.S. News and World Report to stop using average SAT and ACT scores to calculate its influential Best Colleges rankings. 

  • In an open letter to the publication Monday, they wrote that the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to rank colleges using standardized test scores, but that the assessments were already a flawed metric to do so. 

  • Signatories on the letter notably included the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a prominent admissions trade group that has not always advocated for less testing.

Dive Insight:

Many college officials, particularly enrollment managers, dislike the U.S. News list. Yet it remains a mainstay of the admissions landscape for its ability to sway the public and attract attention — and students — to high-ranking institutions.

The publication has long built entrance exam scores into its methodology for the rankings, though recently it has taken steps to account for their diminished role in some schools’ admissions processes. 

Starting with the fall 2021 list, U.S. News stopped categorizing test-blind colleges — which decline to review SAT and ACT scores at all — as unranked. It also weighted test scores less, from 7.75% to 5%. 

The change for test-blind colleges was in part an acknowledgement of the pandemic’s effects on test administration. Colleges shifted to test-optional admissions policies at rapid pace during the health crisis, a trend that is expected to continue.

More than 1,500 colleges will not require test scores for fall 2022, according to FairTest, a group that advocates for equitable uses of standardized assessments and is one of the letter’s signees. This count includes schools that were test-optional prior to the pandemic.

Observers note that U.S. News still penalizes colleges that rely less on test scores. For instance, in determining the rankings, the magazine assigned test-blind schools an average score “equal to the lowest test score by a ranked school in their category.”

The letter’s supporters, led by left-aligned think tank New America, believe the test scores should be thrown out altogether in the methodology. 

They drew attention to criticism that the tests favor White, affluent students who can afford extensive tutoring to boost their scores, a research-backed assertion. A spokesperson for the College Board, which runs the SAT, previously told Higher Ed Dive that while “real inequities” exist in American education, the “SAT itself is not a racist instrument.”

The scores’ inclusion in the rankings calculation also contributed to a “merit aid arms race,” the letter argues, in which public colleges emphasize financial assistance for students with high test scores over those who are low-income. This happens when colleges attempt to raise their average test scores, and thus their spot on the U.S. News list. 

NACAC has three times urged U.S. News to drop test scores from its methodology, the admissions trade group’s CEO, Angel Pérez, said during a virtual roundtable discussion Monday. A representative for the publication responded to one such request in 2008, saying it would change its ranking model if a “meaningful percentage” of colleges ended SAT and ACT admissions requirements. 

The country’s ongoing racial reckoning, one that has magnified inequities like those persistent in the SAT and ACT, makes the moment unique, Pérez said during the event.

He and others at the roundtable said they would promote the campaign aggressively, to the point that U.S. News could not remain silent about their request. 

A spokesperson for U.S. News said in an email Monday that it has not yet announced changes in methodology for the upcoming college rankings, which will include fall 2020 admissions data. 

The spokesperson declined to comment on criticism over the magazine’s continued use of test scores in the rankings.

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