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.
Today many institutions are liberalizing their use of standardized tests for admissions. Across the landscape of institutions of higher education, the nonuse of standardized tests for admissions appears to be a luxury and liberty of the most selective institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford, which, to be fair, can select high scores without explicitly using a cutoff. The problem, however, is that they can also select low scores (e.g., for legacies, second-language math whizzes, donors’ children and athletes) at will because of a socially ascribed status. Elite institutions have the privilege of subjectivity, while other institutions must recoil under a cloak of objectivity.
Because of the serious concerns about the predictive validity of the SAT and ACT, the black community should not entertain social commentary that links low test scores to any functional impairment of the race. How seriously an individual should take the ACT or SAT has nothing to do with the collective of the race and has everything to do with the individual test taker’s goals.
In the current higher education landscape, there are tangible benefits to achieving a high score on the ACT or SAT. However, there are very prestigious universities, high-quality state universities and a broad range of institutions of higher education that routinely accept students who do well in high school but do not have a high SAT or ACT score.
The priority of every black family should be to teach their children how to study hard and make good grades in school, as well as to advocate for classes and learning experiences that are consistent with a college-preparatory curriculum. Currently, there is an achievement gap for grades (pdf): The average graduating high school GPA for black students is 2.7, and the corresponding GPA for white students is a 3.1. That gap reflects many concerns that need to be addressed, but these concerns are often overshadowed by debates about test-score gaps, which become convoluted because of corporate investment in standardized tests.
In addition, any consideration of the gap in SAT and ACT scores or GPAs between black students and white students should be measured with the same discretion applied to the GPA gap between males and females. This gap has led to a quiet quota system that mostly benefits white males applying to elite institutions that are trying to achieve gender parity. Henry Broaddus, admissions dean of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., defended the need for admissions policies that accept males with lower GPAs by asserting, “It's not the College of Mary and Mary; it’s the College of William and Mary.” If we offer the same thoughtfulness to students of color as we do to (mostly white) males, one day it can become the College of Hakim, Javier, Mary, Natalia, Nia and William.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is an author, researcher and educational scholar best known for his publications on academic success among school-age black males and debunking myths about the black community. He is currently on temporary leave from his academic post at Howard University. Follow him on Twitter.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.