How about a thought experiment? Let’s imagine you are a college admissions officer at UCLA. You have two files in your hand: (1) a senior from Phillips Exeter, 4.6 GPA, valedictorian, President of the student body, maybe a team captain, CEO of whatever non-profit organization the student has created to purify water for the developing world, and (2) a senior from West Hills High School, 4.75 GPA, valedictorian, President of the student body, AP Scholar and the star athlete. They both took the SAT. The kid from Phillips Exeter got a 1400; the one from West Hills got a 1550. That last data point makes the choice difficult, at least ostensibly. Multiply that choice by tens of thousands of applicants, and it gets even harder. But at this point, if you’re the kid from West Hills, you still have a fighting chance.
Now, take the exam away. Then add an additional 40,000 applications. The choice doesn’t get harder. It gets easier. And if you’re the West Hills kid (or any student from a middle class home), not in the way that bodes well for you. “This West Hills student is impressive,” you might say to yourself. “But this Exeter kid just did more. The West Hills senior had a better GPA, but that high school definitely wasn’t as challenging as one of the best preparatory schools in the country, right?” When you remove puzzle pieces, you make the picture harder to discern. Consequently, the harder it is for an admission officer to see what makes you a good fit, the less likely you will be seen as one. This is not even to mention students who face significant hardships over the course of their lives. Removing a critical data point from the analysis puts such students at comparative disadvantage.
Eliminating the SAT does more than eliminate a crucial weapon students have in the admissions process. It would make financial resources all the more important: more tutoring, more extracurricular opportunities, even something as critical as consultant advice on college application. In each case, students with hardships, or even middle class students, are just out of luck. It would obscure our ability to measure the quality of education around the country. The test reveals unfairness. One of the common criticisms of the exam is that it is structurally unfair, but that isn’t exactly true. The test isn’t unfair. Life is unfair, in some areas, dramatically so; and the exam measures the results. Doing away with this metric may be a profound symbolic gesture of eradicating structurally unjust metrics, but it will do very little in making education more equal. Indeed, it may make seeing educational inequality near impossible, to the detriment of the students we are ostensibly trying to help.
There is a saying that NFL scouts commonly use when asked what they are looking for in prospective players: “we’ll know it when we see it.” That’s what the “holistic” approach means. It implies engaging in a balancing act when the scales are already tipped against you. Without the SAT, that may be what college admissions counselors are left saying. We might be surprised at the unhappy outcome it creates, at least when you come from the middle classes. There are already a million and one data points that won’t be in your favor. We should think twice before removing one that might be.