More than a score: The ACT and equity in college admissions 

  • Amherst College students in The Science Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2019 9:09:22 AM

AMHERST — Standardized college testing organization ACT recently announced that beginning next fall, students will be able to retake individual portions of the test.

Local college admissions officers and Deidre Cuffee-Gray, a college and career counselor at Amherst Regional High School, said many students will likely welcome the change, as it will allow them to save time and focus on particular subject areas. But Cuffee-Gray also sees the change as a symptom of a larger issue in the college admissions process.

“I think it gives students another option for taking the exam, so that’s helpful,” Cuffee-Gray said of the policy.

But, she added, “there are students who have the skills that they need to be successful in college that don’t have the ability to pay for test prep, and as a result, they don’t have scores that qualify them for test-score-driven schools. And frankly, I think that test-driven schools lose out on those kids as a result.”

Cuffee-Gray is not alone in her criticism of standardized tests such as the ACT and its main competitor, the SAT. Critics of standardized test requirements have long said that the tests place lower-income students at a disadvantage in the college admissions process, and studies have supported these concerns. Between 2012 and 2016, the ACT has reported, students from families with an annual income of less than $80,000 scored an average of 4.1 points lower than students from families with higher annual incomes. Standardized tests also present an achievement gap for students of color, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization that advocates for test-optional admissions.

The base ACT fee is $52 without the test’s writing portion, or $68 including the writing portion. The organization allows test-takers to send scores to four colleges or universities for free but charges $13 for each additional report sent.

Standardized testing giants such as the ACT and SAT do offer some financial assistance for disadvantaged students — the ACT allows up to two fee waivers and some preparatory material for students who demonstrate that they are “economically disadvantaged.” But for students and families able to foot the bill, intensive test prep classes and sessions can add up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars — and students with means can now retake the tests for better scores.

Although most colleges continue to require that students submit either the ACT or SAT, a growing number of institutions have started to shift away from relying on standardized testing when making admissions decisions. As of 2018, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing reported that more than 1,000 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States do not require students to submit SAT or ACT results.

Predictors of college success?

Of the Five Colleges, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst require that students submit either SAT or ACT results, while Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges are both test-optional. Hampshire College, which was test-optional from the time that it began admitting students in 1970, took a stronger stance against standardized testing in 2014, announcing that it would go “test-blind.” With this change, Hampshire does not accept ACT or SAT results.

Outside of the Pioneer Valley, the University of Chicago made national headlines last year when it announced that it would go test-optional. With a 5.9 percent acceptance rate for the class of 2023, according to the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, the university became the highest-ranking institution in the country to implement a test-optional policy.

To Cuffee-Gray, the growing wave of test-optional schools stands as a testament to what she sees as flaws in requiring standardized test scores.

“When schools like the University of Chicago, Bates, Trinity and Wesleyan are perfectly happy to be test-optional, that’s sending a message, because those are very rigorous institutions,” she said. 

Mount Holyoke College’s standardized testing policy states that the college does not require applicants to send scores “because standardized tests may not measure the full range of a student’s intellectual and motivational qualities.”

Leykia Nulan, dean of Amission at Mount Holyoke, said she sees the new ACT policy as “great” in the sense that it “affords students an opportunity to focus on specific areas of the test,” which she said is a strategy that she would recommend to students looking to take the test. 

Still, she continued, “I can see why there are concerns that it might privilege the most elite students that are going through the application process — because it costs money and it takes time to actually be aware that this is an option.”

Matt McGann, dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Amherst College, said that as of last week, his office had not yet discussed any impacts the new guideline may have on the college. But standardized test scores, when considered alongside other factors, are a reliable indicator of student success at Amherst, he said.

“Our research that we have done internally suggests that standardized tests, in conjunction with high school transcripts, are the best predictor that we have of success by various measures at college,” McGann said. To account for achievement gaps, the college considers test results in a “holistic fashion,” he said.

“We take a lot of care to mitigate bias in the admission process, and we want to consider every part of the application in its proper context,” McGann said. “In our whole-person review of each application, we want to make sure that we are understanding the context of all different credentials that are being presented, including standardized testing.”

The college also considers that opportunities such as AP courses, extracurricular activities and leadership roles may also be unequally available to students, McGann said.

As long as these elements are part of the equation, “I think you can have a process as equitable as it can be,” McGann said. 

Does testing diminish diversity?

In the 2018-2019 academic year, 45 percent of Amherst College students self-identified as persons of color, which the college’s president, Biddy Martin, has said makes the college “one of the most diverse institutions of our kind in the country.”

While Amherst College has promoted a racially diverse student body while keeping the standardized test score requirement, Hampshire College noted an uptick in diversity on campus when it made the switch to becoming a test-blind college. 

When announcing the test-blind policy, Hampshire College officials attributed it to “fairness in access to educational opportunity.” Following the change, the percentage of students of color jumped from 21 percent to 31 percent, and the number of first-generation college students increased from 10 percent to 18 percent, the Gazette reported. Overall statistics at Hampshire remain around these numbers today, with 32.1 percent of all students identifying as students of color and first-generation college students making up 19.1 percent of the first-year class in 2018.

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