The College Admissions Scandal and the Trouble With Strictly Timed Standardized Tests

Faster doesn't mean smarter. When we prioritize speed on the SAT, we discriminate against poor or disabled students—while we discount the importance of slower, deeper thinking.
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The SAT needs to die.

Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation charged 50 people with bribing university officials and test proctors to game the college admissions systems at elite colleges on behalf of their children. It's a shameful affair, and one of the most shameful aspects of the story is that parents allegedly hired a professional operator, William Singer, to help them falsely claim that their child had a disability and was therefore entitled to double time over two days to take the SAT.

On the one hand, this part of the story could further the mistaken but long-held stereotype that people with disabilities often game the system to get unfair advantages. But that's the wrong conclusion to draw from this fraud.

Instead, the college admissions scandal should draw attention to a different problem: That the companies that develop and administer standardized tests have no empirical basis for placing such an emphasis on speed. Yet these companies do put a terrible premium on speed, even though the notion that faster is better has been debunked: In fact, a student's scores on such exams correlate in a perfect linear relationship with socio-economic status rather than with a student's ability to solve difficult problems.

Stringently timed, high-stake tests have an adverse impact against racial minorities, women, those with low socio-economic status, non-native speakers of English, older applicants, and people with disabilities. Of course, that adverse impact is further exacerbated when the ultra-wealthy cheat to inflate their children's scores.

Actress Felicity Huffman inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles on March 12th, 2019.

Actress Felicity Huffman inside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles on March 12th, 2019.

It is a dirty little secret that no testing entity has published any validity study justifying the need for students to take exams under such stringent time pressures. Rigorously timed exams are easy to administer and readily produce a bell-shaped curve. But it is a bell-shaped curve expressing socio-economic status—not genuine ability. It would be easier (and much quicker) just to ask students to indicate their parents' income level and then hand them a score in a few seconds, rather than put low-income students through the charade of grit and determination required to overcome their lack of class privilege to do well on these exams.

It is true that some universities make submission of scores on the ACT or SAT optional, allowing applicants to use other methods to demonstrate their knowledge and aptitudes. Nonetheless, when applicants take advantage of such optional methods, they place themselves at competitive disadvantage with respect to admissions or financial aid, including merit-based financial aid. The absence of standardized test scores signals that an applicant's scores are well below the median for that university's applicant pool. Despite their test-optional stances, such universities in fact reify the importance of speeded standardized exams. Further, because standardized test scores are part of the U.S. News and World Report ranking system, even test-optional universities are mindful of the big role that the test scores of their admitted students play in helping them maintain a high rank, and make admissions decisions accordingly.

In some ways, it's a good thing that this bribery and cheating scandal has shone a spotlight on how some parents use fraudulent means to game standardized tests for their children. And while no system of admission can avoid cheating entirely, these stories should cause us to pause and ask why we privilege speed on the exams that decide whether or not a student gets to go to college.

Stop and ask yourself how you solve difficult problems in life. Do you rush to figure out an answer reflexively? Or do you pause, consider various options, take a break, and come back later that day or the next day with a more considered answer? Deep thinking is rarely fast thinking. And deep thinking is what we need from our young people to solve our nation's problems.

Life is not a sprint, and college admissions should not be one either. It is time to insist that the companies developing standardized exams relax the time constraints, so that all students will have a chance to demonstrate their skills and abilities—not just those with parents who can find ways to buy extra time on college admissions tests.