If you wanted to understand Andre Ramsey, you wouldn't look at a test score.
A test score couldn't tell you about the hardships he faced after both his parents went to prison when he was a toddler. It couldn't tell you how, as a third grader, he dreamed of going to Harvard as soon as he saw a picture of the campus. It couldn't tell you about the late nights studying, the volunteer work, the almost unfathomable number of clubs he's joined and leadership positions he's held.
So when Ramsey, now a senior at Spokane's Rogers High School, applied to Harvard last year, he didn't include any SAT or ACT score. After all, Harvard suspended the requirement to do so because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December, Ramsey found out he got in.
"I screamed. I was like, 'I actually got in! Oh my gosh, I got in!'" Ramsey says.
Ramsey isn't sure whether not taking the SAT had anything to do with it. His application — with the extracurricular activities, 3.97 GPA and strong letters of recommendation — certainly was strong with or without a high SAT score. But for Ramsey, that's exactly the point. The test score shouldn't matter one way or another.
"We're more than a score. We're more than just a test," he says. "We are what we do every day. And my take on how I planned on getting into Harvard was just being a well-rounded human, a leader, and somebody who didn't just stand out in one way, but was well-rounded in all these different ways."
Increasingly, higher education institutions and K-12 schools are seeing it the same way. The pandemic forced colleges across the country to drop the requirement for applicants to submit standardized tests, and many are now making that change permanent. Washington State University last month went a step further: Not only is it not required, but WSU will no longer even consider SAT or ACT scores for any applicant.
"This is the trend," said WSU provost Elizabeth Chilton in a statement last month.
It's a conversation that's been ongoing for years but that the pandemic has given sharper focus. The issue has been thrust into today's culture wars, with some seeing the movement away from testing as an effort on the left to abandon any standards in education under what critics of the movement see as the false pretense of racism.
Local university and school officials, however, argue that it's not about abandoning standards, but using this pause to reassess whether these tests are the best way to measure learning and improve diversity in higher education.
And it's not just the trend in college admissions. After the U.S. Department of Education told states a year ago they need not administer standardized tests due to the difficulties created by the pandemic, many state leaders and school officials have renewed calls to rethink the way K-12 students are tested.
One of them is Chris Reykdal, Washington's state superintendent of public instruction. This spring, the U.S. Department of Education denied his proposal to drastically reduce the number of students who take state tests this spring. In response, Reykdal announced that Washington wouldn't administer the tests this spring anyway, but instead in the fall.
While that proposal to waive test requirements from Reykdal may have been directly related to the pandemic, he hopes for a more permanent transformation of K-12 testing. He's worried the Department of Education's denial of Washington's proposal indicates they're not on the same page, despite President Joe Biden's previous statements opposing standardized testing.
"They just kept saying to us, 'Now is not the time for a referendum on standardized testing,'" Reykdal says. "We said it over and over again: When is a better time? This is exactly the time to look at this entire question."
A FLAWED METRIC?The SAT, created and administered by the College Board, has been criticized over the years for perpetuating a system of inequality in higher education. Asian and White students consistently outperform Black and Hispanic students on the SAT, according to the College Board's data. And while some argue that's the fault of the education system, not the test itself, critics say the SAT both mirrors and reinforces gaps that tend to favor affluent White students.
"This is a racist test," University of California regent Jonathan Sures said last year in a discussion about making the test optional, Forbes reported.
That sentiment is becoming more widespread in higher education. Part of the thinking comes from the racist origins of the SAT, a test first invented in 1926 by Carl Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor and a eugenicist who believed tests would prove the racial superiority of White Americans.
The tests have changed since then, but some experts like Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an assistant professor of social and cultural studies at University of Idaho, argue that it's not really possible for these tests to be truly objective. Often, questions reflect language, norms and everyday behaviors that some students of certain cultures may understand better than others, she says.
"It kind of paints a picture of particular experiences that are culturally specific, and oftentimes fall around racial lines, in terms of the kind of place or space that you might grow up in and the kinds of ways you might use the language," she says.
Even if it is possible to craft an objective test measuring one's abilities, admissions experts argue the way students prepare for the SAT and ACT still leads to disparate outcomes. More affluent families are more likely to hire a tutor to improve their student's score, for example, and they encounter fewer logistical hurdles than lower income students, who are disproportionately Black and Brown students.
"Someone who can afford to take the test four or five times can earn a score that's higher than they would if they took it the first time. So a student who can spend money can improve their scores in a way that students who can't spend money are unable to," says Jens Larson, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Washington University.
And that means the tests may not be measuring a student's ability or talent, but their access to resources and family income. Unsurprisingly, data backs up the premise that the more money a student's parents make, the more likely they will score high on the SAT.
Then there's another major problem with standardized tests like the SAT and ACT: On their own, local colleges say they don't actually predict college success all that well.
"Test scores haven't been shown to provide a whole lot of additional information for colleges when they are making admissions decisions," Larson says.
A majority of the time, according to one 2011 study, test scores are consistent with a student's academic performance in high school. But when they're not, it's more likely that women, Black and Latino students have a lower test score with a higher grade point average, that study says. Meanwhile, students from wealthier families were more likely to have lower GPAs and higher SAT scores.
But grades, overall, are a much better indicator of college success than test results.
"Which makes sense," Larson says. "Students spend four years building a transcript of high school grades, and they spend one morning on a Saturday, or one afternoon on a weekday taking a test."
So not requiring test scores in applications, the thinking goes, removes an unnecessary barrier, allowing colleges to welcome a more diverse class of students who may do poorly on a test but are likely to succeed in college anyway.
"A college degree is still one of the greatest predictors of future earnings, and everyone should have the opportunity to attend college if it's part of their educational or professional journey," Larson says.
SEEING RESULTSNot everyone is on board with this trend.
The College Board insists that the best predictor of success is GPA and the SAT combined. While acknowledging access can be a barrier for some, supporters of the tests challenge the idea that tutors play a large role in boosting test scores, saying there's a lack of scientific evidence to support that. They also argue that if tests reflect inequalities in education, it's true that grades do as well, and they fear grade inflation will become more of an issue.
Meanwhile, a University of California report last year actually found test scores may be better predictors of success specifically for students who are underrepresented, first-generation, or whose families are low-income.
Even Rogers High School Principal Lori Wyborney, a supporter of colleges going test optional, sees grading as a greater problem than standardized tests.
"The biggest problem facing education right now is grading," she says. "I will make a lot of people mad with that statement. But it's not fair. It's not equitable. It's not consistent."
That's because most of the time, grades aren't an indicator of learning, but of compliance, she says. It measures if they're turning assignments in and if they're attending school, but it doesn't always measure understanding of a subject, she argues. Spokane Public Schools is looking at making grades more fair, she says, but it's an uphill battle because teachers still want autonomy in the classroom.
Without tests, there would also be concerns over admissions officers giving more weight to extracurricular activities. Research has shown that income also influences participation in extracurriculars — richer families have more money and flexibility, making it easier for those students to engage in those activities.
One idea would be to make SAT and ACT tests more accessible for students: It could be free and required for students during school hours, as Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics at University of Michigan, argues in a 2018 Brookings Institute report. That could actually help close the income and racial disparity in college admissions, she writes.
"The evidence indicates that if taking these tests is voluntary, many talented, disadvantaged students will go undetected," she says.
Initiatives like that, however, aren't swaying colleges much when it comes to deciding whether to require the tests. Larson says it's great to see any idea to expand college application rates and success, but there's a simpler solution: Highly selective colleges could just decide to admit more low-income students. He notes that most colleges are not like Harvard — a majority already admit more than half of all applicants.
"So why do we insist on designing a process for millions of high school students based on the needs of a small fraction of all college students, most of whom are the wealthiest of the wealthy?" adds Larson at EWU, which stopped requiring test scores last spring.
Even before then, hundreds of colleges had gone testing optional, but the pandemic made a trend into a necessity because of the difficulty of administering the assessment tests. Like EWU, other local universities including Gonzaga, WSU and University of Idaho made SAT and ACT scores optional in admissions last spring.
Now, seeing how it would work in practice, some plan on staying that way. University of Idaho spokesperson Jodi Walker says there's ongoing conversation about staying test optional. EWU announced in May 2020 that it would permanently become test optional, and Larson says he imagines EWU will ultimately end up test blind, meaning SAT and ACT scores won't be considered at all.
WSU, meanwhile, already went test blind.
Saichi Oba, WSU's vice provost for enrollment management, says that when the question came up last fall, representatives from all WSU campuses — enrollment management officials, academic officers, financial aid officers and others — gave "overwhelming support" to no longer using test scores in admissions. The tests simply didn't add much value, they argued. WSU students with a high school GPA above 3.5 consistently have about an 80 percent six-year graduation rate at WSU, they found. But students with an SAT score above 1,200 had a six-year graduation rate of less than 70 percent.
Going test blind instead of optional, Oba says, eliminates any confusion over whether students should still submit them.
Colleges that have gone test optional have welcomed more diverse student populations. When forced to do so during the pandemic, Harvard and other selective colleges saw a flood in applicants. It dropped the acceptance rate overall, but the percentage of Black students admitted at Harvard jumped by more than 3 percentage points, the New York Times reported, though some experts attributed at least part of the increase in diversity to the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
Local universities, too, realized that removing test requirements worked out just fine. At WSU, Oba says admissions officers felt comfortable last year with their process of reviewing applications without test scores. Instead of looking at the score, they may spend more time on other parts of the application, taking a more holistic view. Crucially, he says, that would include how many Advanced Placement or other difficult classes a student took, and in which direction grades were trending over four years. That helps eliminate issues created by grade inflation, or awarding higher grades than students deserve, he says.
Larson agrees grading may need an overhaul to be more equitable, too. He just doesn't see that as an argument to keep standardized tests.
"I think it's exactly true that systemic inequality is built into the education system," Larson says. "But I also think that if we know something to be bad, and it is easy to fix, then we should fix it."
"So why do we insist on designing a process for millions of high school students based on the needs of a small fraction of all college students, most of whom are the wealthiest of the wealthy?"
CONTINUING THE TRENDSo does this mean we should get rid of all standardized tests in K-12 schools?
Similar to the way the pandemic forced colleges to ditch test requirements, it also forced K-12 schools to forgo spring assessments, causing school leaders to reimagine what testing in schools can look like.
It would take a change to state and federal laws. And while top Washington school leaders hope for a new testing system, they worry the federal government wants to maintain testing requirements.
Last year, the federal government did not require states to administer tests for the first time since the No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002 with bipartisan support. And amid growing support for fewer tests, Biden on the campaign trail once told a crowd of educators that he was against standardized tests in public schools.
So, Washington educators were puzzled when his administration decided to resume testing requirements this spring.
"That caught us off guard. We expected there would be a waiver, based on everything we'd heard," says Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "To see that wasn't the case, that was incredibly disappointing."
In Washington, the state Legislature in 2019 removed a passing score on the state Smarter Balanced Assessments as a graduation requirement for high school students, though they may still use the test as one of many "graduation pathways" needed for a diploma. Still, many teachers see the state test — administered to roughly 700,000 students in grades 3-8 and 10 each spring — as a burden that doesn't actually tell them anything they don't already know.
"I think if you talk to any educator across the state, they can give you an accurate accounting of where, individually, all of their students are right now," Delaney says.
Reykdal, the state schools chief, agrees that state tests aren't effective for "diagnostics," meaning they are not good at telling teachers when they need to intervene with individual students. By the time the test results come back, it's too late to do so anyway.
The tests are valuable, he says, for statewide accountability purposes. You can look at how fourth graders performed in reading, for example, and see if it's better or worse than previous years.
The thing is, Reykdal doesn't think it's necessary to test every fourth grader in Washington to see that. A sample of 50,000 students could provide the same information to the federal government, he argues. That's essentially what Reykdal proposed to the U.S. Department of Education this spring before the idea was rejected.
Ultimately, that sort of sampling approach is what Reykdal hopes to move to in the future. Except that vision wouldn't include the Smarter Balanced Assessment at all. Rather, he envisions a more robust version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to fill that role.
The NAEP is currently given to a sample of students in grades 4 and 8 every two years. By expanding the sample size, the NAEP could give information on how different demographics are performing. It would achieve the same goals of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, he argues, only it would save the state millions of dollars in test costs and reduce the burden on teachers and students.
"I think the nation should move to this," Reykdal says.
Individual school districts, then, wouldn't be forced to administer a state test, but could instead choose from a few federally approved tests to identify possible areas of improvement, Reykdal proposes. One possible drawback, though, is that it may be harder to compare individual school districts with one another to identify those that may need more support.
Still, Spokane Public Schools may be on board with a plan that results in less testing overall, says Scott Kerwien, director of college and career readiness. But Kerwien stresses that any test should only be looked at as a small piece of the puzzle. The pandemic has forced schools to grapple with how to assess whether, in remote or in-person learning, they're reaching students.
"That's the broader piece that we're kind of just asking out loud, in general: When teachers teach something to students, how do we know what they're learning? And I think that can happen without a high-stakes test," Kerwien says.
That doesn't mean getting rid of all tests — districts still need some level of understanding of where students are at, he says. But it also means being open to other ways students can demonstrate learning, including through projects, portfolios, presentations or other forms of media like podcasts and videos.
After all, as Wyborney can attest, assessments can be poor indicators of learning, especially when they don't reflect the culture of the students they're assessing. Wyborney says she once taught at a school with a high Latino population. One year, a test asked something like, "describe a fad that has influenced you." But the word "fad" didn't make sense to a lot of the Latino students in that context.
"There isn't necessarily a Spanish word to go with the word 'fad,'" Wyborney says. "And so just that one word, 'fad,' threw them, and made it really hard for them to even write about what they're supposed to write about."
Anthony-Stevens, the University of Idaho assistant professor, says she favors any approach that would make school districts more critical consumers of the tests they're administering to students, which is why Reykdal's plan is interesting.
"I think we're still dealing with the legacy of No Child Left Behind and this concept that our funding and worth is attached to those test scores," she says. "I think that we could use those as one of many tools to be able to see what we can know about student learning."
SUCCESS STORYIn a way, Andre Ramsey's experience of being admitted to Harvard from Rogers High School reveals both the success and the failures of standardized tests.
A kid growing up in the poorest neighborhood of Spokane, the odds weren't great that Ramsey, or any Rogers student, would even graduate. As he began elementary school, Rogers was struggling to get more than 60 percent of its students graduated. His future high school wasn't exactly the first place you'd think of as a launching point for a prestigious university.
"There was a lot of doubt, especially because of the reputation Rogers had," Ramsey says.
By the time he began high school, he knew he had to pack in as many extracurricular activities as possible. He became student body president, varsity soccer captain, adviser on the Spokane Public Schools school board, and state officer for Distributive Education Clubs of America.
But in the end, going to Rogers worked in his favor.
Rogers has become a positive story in education, not just because of star students like Ramsey. Since Wyborney took over as principal in 2010, the graduation rate improved by nearly 30 percent. Today, nearly 90 percent of Rogers students graduate.
And it wasn't by making school any easier. It was the opposite. Rogers focused on adding more difficult Advanced Placement classes — even making AP English the default course for juniors — and eliminating easy courses. As a New York Times headline in 2017 says, it's "a school where raising the bar lifts hope."
And by adding more difficult AP classes, it helped a college application. Ramsey took at least 10 of those AP classes, he says.
Of course, each AP class ends with a standardized test, too.
"Harvard does still like that because it's a nationally normed test," Wyborney says. "They can compare him to other students his age, and in his class, which I think Harvard likes to do a lot."
So while suspending the SAT and ACT requirement last year led to a more diverse freshman class, Harvard still could use AP tests to compare applicants. Dropping one test requirement removed a barrier for students applying to a selective university, on the one hand. On the other, greater access to another standardized test may have helped some of those low-income students get in.
Wyborney believes college should be available for all kids. Never mind universities like Harvard. But WSU? Anyone should be able to go there if they work hard, she says. She also agrees that the sheer amount of testing for K-12 students can be a burden.
But she will always defend aspects of state tests. She's against them being tied to graduation, but she credits them for exposing systemic inequality in education. If there's one good thing that No Child Left Behind did, she says, it's that.
"It's the only reason schools started to do something different for kids of color and kids in poverty," she says. "It exposed that we had to do something different in order to get them to the same level playing field. Did we exactly do it? No, we have not yet. And we still have got to figure that out."
Excessive testing, she says, probably isn't the answer.
"We probably went a little too far with testing, which we sometimes do in education," she says. "We go too far one way." ♦