Will the New SAT Boost College Prospects for Black Students?

Black students have always performed poorly on standardized tests, but these tests are not necessarily the best measurement of college success.

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Major changes are coming to the SAT. Both the SAT and the ACT are used to influence admissions and placement at colleges and universities in the U.S. In 2016 the SAT will return to a 1,600-point scale from 2,400, eliminate antiquated vocabulary words and assess students’ understanding of context rather than rote memorization. The essay section will also be optional. In addition, the test will no longer penalize students for wrong answers, and the reading-comprehension section will incorporate subjects that students typically learn in high school and middle school.

Throughout the history of the SAT and ACT, black students’ average scores have been the lowest among all race groups. Currently, the national average for black students on the ACT is 17, compared with 22 for white students, and the national average for black students on the SAT is 860, compared with 1,061 for white students. Black students’ scores on the SAT and ACT have been relatively flat for the last 20 years, although significant gains have been made in black students’ graduation rates and college-degree attainment.

The disparity in those numbers raises questions about the significance of the SAT in predicting long-term college success for African Americans—or any student, for that matter.

Reasons for lower standardized test scores among black students have been debated in the academic literature as well as in public discourse. Some question the validity and reliability of the tests, while others assert that the systemic impact of racial oppression and poverty diminishes black students’ performance on the tests.

Other, more extreme explanations purport that black students’ performance is diminished because of natural cognitive deficits or corrupted cultural values. However, as black families and the black community have sought to reconcile low test scores, test manufacturers have been grappling with research suggesting that the ACT and SAT do not predict college success.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently released a research report (pdf) that revealed no significant differences in cumulative GPA or graduation rates between students who submit test scores for college admission and those who opt out of using scores for admission. In addition, the study found that high school GPA correlated highly with college GPA, regardless of SAT or ACT scores. In other words, students with low high school GPAs and high SAT or ACT scores generally performed poorly in college, and students with strong high school GPAs and low SAT or ACT scores generally performed well in college. The total sample of the study was almost 123,000 students across 33 diverse institutions.

Some of the proposed changes to the SAT are aimed at addressing a known achievement gap that could be a proxy for race and/or socioeconomic status—the gap between students who participate in test prep and those who don’t. Currently, test-preparation materials began at $25, and test-preparation courses and tutoring cost up to $6,600. More-affluent families spend more money to “train” their children to take the test, which often involves skills that have little to do with crystallizing the knowledge they should have gained in high school. The significant gains in SAT and ACT scores achieved by students who participate in the more expensive test programs, as reported by the test-prep companies, call into question the integrity of the tests.

Whether changes to the SAT will make scores more predictive of college performance and reduce affluent families’ ability to “game” the test will not be known until years after changes are implemented. However, the proposed changes will do little to mitigate the widespread use and misuse of the SAT or ACT as an admissions criterion. NACAC’s “Statement of Principles of Good Practice” (pdf) explicitly states that universities should “not use minimum test scores as the sole criterion for admission, advising or for the awarding of financial aid.” This is consistent with prudent testing practices as developed by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education.

Although it is uncommon for universities to use only the ACT or SAT, universities may violate this principle if they use a base-level GPA but a restrictive SAT or ACT score. For example, as a state university, Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., is required to restrict admissions to a minimum of a 2.0 GPA and a 20 on the ACT or a 940 on the SAT. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School Transcript Study (pdf), the average high school GPA among black students is 2.7, but the average ACT score among black students is 17. Thus, such a policy essentially renders the high school GPA moot and effectively uses the ACT or SAT as the sole criterion, which not only violates professional standards but is also not supported by research.

HBCUs are more likely than predominantly white institutions to require the ACT or SAT, although black students perform worse than any other racial group on these tests. Average admissions requirements across all 105 HBCUs—including public and private schools and two-year colleges—are a 2.5 GPA and an 18 on the ACT or a 905 on the SAT. Seventy-five percent of all HBCUs have a minimum standardized-test-score requirement. By contrast, the average admissions requirements for 55 “flagship” or most competitive state institutions across 50 states are a 2.4 GPA, a 21 on the ACT and a 1,032 on the SAT. However, only 43 percent of these institutions report a minimum standardized-test-score requirement.