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Why colleges are reconsidering their reliance on standardized tests for admission

A college admissions scandal involving several celebrities has cast an ugly spotlight on how entry into higher education can be gamed. Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are a key point in the saga, and they now face renewed scrutiny over their value — and their correlation to economic background. John Yang reports and talks to Jeff Selingo, author of several books on higher education.

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  • William Brangham:

    The college admissions scandal known as Varsity Blues has cast an ugly spotlight on the world of college admissions and how the system can be gamed.

    A key piece of that scandal is the way that parents hired impostors to take admissions tests, fake scores and allow students more time to take their college entrance exams.

    Once again, this scandal has led to a number of questions about the controversial standardized tests that have long been required for college. It's rocking the world of higher education.

    And it's the focus of John Yang's conversation tonight for our series on Rethinking College.

    It's part of our regular education coverage, Making the Grade.

  • John Yang:

    William, for years, there has been debate how well standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs predict academic performance. And there have been concerns about how race and economic background influence test scores.

    Now a record number of schools no longer require test scores for admission, and the nine-campus University of California system is studying whether to join them.

    Jeff Selingo has written several books on higher education, including "There Is Life After College." He is currently working on a book on college admissions, "Who Gets In and Why." It's due out next year.

    Jeff Selingo, thanks for joining us.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    It's great to be here.

  • John Yang:

    Why is this debate or issue about whether or not to use SATs and ACTs is coming up now? We have the Varsity Blues investigation. Is there a rethinking now of the whole college admissions process?

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Well, I think a lot of it is that the test scores are highly correlated with family income.

    If you come from a family making over $200,000, you have a one in five chance of scoring a 1,400 or above on the sat, if you come from a family making under $20,000, a one in 50 chance. High correlation between family income and SAT scores.

    And as colleges and universities are trying to diversify, both economically, racially and ethnically, I think they're trying to look for other ways of assessing students beyond just a single score on a four-hour test.

  • John Yang:

    Now, there have been attempts to try to change or tweak the tests to try to take into account those — sort of the socioeconomic background issues.

    What — I mean, most recently, the adversity score. Talk about that.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    So, the College Board tried to come up with what they called an environmental context dashboard.

    It was actually separate from the SAT score. But what it would do is give admissions officers who were reviewing applications a sense of the type of background that the student was coming from. It looked at the neighborhood they grew up in. hit looked at the high school that they went to.

    And as a result of a lot of pushback against this by high schools and by parents, the College Board decided to do away with this a couple of months ago. So they're looking for ways to measure the context that students are learning in, whether that's from their home environment or from the high school.

  • John Yang:

    In the introduction, I mentioned the University of California is looking at this now. They're going to announce their decision, they say, in February or March.

    How important is that decision going to be?

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Huge, right?

    The University of Chicago, highly selective private university, obviously in Chicago, when test-optional about a year or so ago, and there was a thinking that a lot of other highly selective name-brand colleges would follow them. Very few, or actually none did.

    Most of the test-optional colleges are lower-tier colleges. If the University of California does it, it's going to be big news, and I think a lot of other colleges will follow.

    There are a lot of students in California who go to college everywhere around the country. A lot of them take the SAT and ACT because the University of California requires it. If they no longer require it, I have a feeling other colleges will follow along.

  • John Yang:

    I think a lot of people don't realize that there's a lot of money at stake in this question.

  • Jeff Selingo:


    The College Board, a nonprofit entity, over a billion dollars in revenue from testing. That includes A.P. testing, college, SAT and other types of testing. So they — there's a lot at stake in this.

    Colleges and universities also have a lot at stake as well. They — the number one predictor of success in college are grades in high school and the rigor of the high school curriculum.

    But a lot of colleges don't necessarily trust high school grades. They think there's some grade inflation happening at private and public high schools. So they like to use the SAT or the ACT as kind of the balance wheel against grading.

    It's something that is national and it's something that they trust.

  • John Yang:

    And it's not just matriculating, becoming — becoming a freshman — for incoming freshmen. There are a lot of schools that they are — graduate schools are no longer going to require standardized tests.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Yes, we're seeing a lot of graduate schools, like, move back from standardized testing for graduate programs.

    Again, it's also a way to try to boost interest, particularly at the graduate level, because a lot of students going back to graduate school might be five, 10 years out of college. And the last thing they want to do is take a standardized test.

    So it's also a way to boost application numbers as well. And we even see that at the undergraduate level. We do see application numbers rise at schools that do go test-optional after they do it.

  • John Yang:

    How did the SATs and the ACTs become sort of landmarks or pieces of furniture in the college admissions process?

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Well, it was really never designed that way.

    When the SAT was first put into place, it was a way to try to expand access to colleges and universities, because, at that time, most of the elite colleges essentially took students from elite boarding schools and elite private schools. And the SAT was a way, oh, we could trust taking a kid from a high school in North Dakota.

    But it was never the high-stakes test it eventually became. And it became a high-stakes test overall later on because more students were going to college. And, again, we wanted to — how do we assess a high school in the middle of Iowa and a high school in North Carolina?

    The other thing that happened is, the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which rank colleges and universities, used it as one of their measures of success. And once they did that, once they did that, colleges and universities felt like, well, we have to do everything we can do to raise our SAT scores, because, if we raise our SAT scores, we're going to go up in the rankings.

  • John Yang:

    Jeff Selingo's book next year is "Who Gets In and Why."

    Thank you very much.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Thank you very much.

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