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In a test of fairness more colleges seek SAT alternatives

This is adapted from our Lumina Foundation podcast, “Today’s Student / Tomorrow’s Talent.” Click the video below to see the show, or if you’re on the go, catch us on iTunes or wherever audio podcasts are found. To see more episodes, please go to the show’s website.

For decades, the SAT has been one of the most widely used measures in college admissions. But between a California lawsuit to stop schools from using the test in admission decisions and new University of Chicago research showing that grade-point average is a better indicator of college success than standardized test scores, future use of the SAT as an admissions tool may well be in doubt.

My guests on Episode 18 of the Lumina Foundation podcast “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent,” NPR reporter Elissa Nadworny, and Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, talk about what might be next in admissions and what would be an improvement over standardized tests.

Nadworny has been following civil rights cases filed against the University of California Board of Regents for use of SAT and ACT test scores in admissions decisions. The system is “knowingly creating barriers to higher education for students of color and students with disabilities,” the lawsuits allege.

Nadworny said Public Counsel, the pro bono law firm that filed the suits, wants standardized tests removed from the admissions process because it believes the tests are racially, demographically, and socioeconomically biased. She noted that nationally about a thousand colleges and universities have already gone test-optional, including the University of Chicago, American University and liberal arts schools such as Bates College.

In the 1960s, the California system was an early adopter of the SAT as a measure for admissions, and other schools and state systems followed suit. Now, Nadworny said, if California drops the test, it’s likely that others will do the same.

And what will schools replace the SAT with? Nadworny said the Smarter Balanced test, which is aligned to the Common Core, is one possibility. Smarter Balanced reports that more than 200 colleges use its test scores to determine student readiness, and six use them for college admissions.

Another, better option would be to base admission decisions on grades, Elaine Allensworth tells me. The University of Chicago researcher said that students’ grades are four times more predictive of college success than standardized exam scores.

GPA is “incredibly predictive” of how students will do in college, no matter which high school they attend, she said, and helping students get better grades “is a stronger strategy for improving readiness for college than working to get higher test scores.”

Allensworth said she’s often asked whether GPAs are subjective. The answer is not really. Even comparing different high schools, the difference from school to school is no more than half a grade point.

“The problem isn’t that GPAs are so variable,” she said. “The problem is that test scores are so narrow in terms of what they’re measuring. If you look at the college graduation rates of students’ high schools and the achievement levels of students’ high schools, that will give you a better indicator.”

Allensworth pointed out that tests only measure a small portion of what a student needs to know in college.

“Students need to have much more general knowledge across many different topic areas, many different kinds of skills—not just being able to take a one-time, high-stakes test,” she said. “And they need to show consistent effort over an entire semester, an entire school year, in many different formats.”

Right now, 65 percent of jobs in the United States require some kind of high-quality postsecondary education.  Using new research and examining long-held practices and policies that act as gatekeepers to prosperity (read: standardized tests), are the first steps toward giving everyone a fair shot at success.

Tracy Chen