The surprising reason why test scores have become even more important for college admission: Fairness

By SAT ACT Test Prep
SAT, Guilford
The SAT might be the fairest part of the college admissions process.

Denise, one of my students from Guilford High School from years ago, now works in college admissions.  She called me recently and said: “you were totally right about the SAT being the fairest part of college admissions.”

The grumbles about the SAT start almost as immediately as Connecticut high school juniors (and parents) kick off the college season.

Good grades in rigorous classes is generically the most important item for admission. SATs (ACTs) are next and activities are third.  Other areas such as college essays and recommendations follow.

Why are standardized tests so important?  That seems so unfair.  That’s the common refrain. It is also an unthinking one.

College admissions – at least to the top 50 or so colleges – is extraordinarily competitive.

If asked, most parents/students would respond that they would prefer objective to subjective criteria for evaluating students.

Examine the list and ask “which is the most objective criteria?”

Subjective areas are simply hard to judge on a comparative basis.

How does one determine whether an all-state trumpet player is better at “activities” than a student council vice-president?

Should someone who works 20 hours per work during the school year due to financial need be penalized for not having any school activities?

How would you compare someone with hundreds of community service hours in a variety of areas with someone with fewer hours but with all those hours devoted to a local hospice?

One might think that grades provide a better measure of fairness. This is not always true.

Grade inflation in some schools is rampant. We have many students from a local Connecticut school where almost everyone we meet has an average hovering above or near 90.

There are also a few schools in the Shoreline, CT area, such as East Lyme High School, Daniel Hand High School in Madison and Guilford High School where many students in the 4th decile (between 30-40% class rank) would most likely be in the top 10% of certain neighboring schools that have a far less competitive environment.

In Denise’s case – my college admissions friend – she said that she has to advocate for Guilford High School students because she knows it is such a strong high school.  “I don’t want to be a snob but when my colleagues (in Massachusetts) compare students from some of the high schools more inland to Guilford’s students, I have to tell them that there is a difference.  Fortunately, the good SAT scores from Guilford students often saves them.”

We are only referencing our local area. The scope of differences across the nation is so extraordinary that one could argue that “A-quality” work in one locality might rate a “B” or lower in many other places.  Certainly, students in suburban Connecticut would get better grades if they attended the average public school in Mississippi.

Students who earn As at The Williams School in New London are really earning As. They are taking classes with top teachers, top students, and a top workload.

There are other schools in southeastern  Connecticut where an A grade is not as impressive.

But colleges across the nation do not necessarily know the differences between schools.

In addition, even within single schools, many students are the victim of the “tough grading” teacher in a certain class, while others in the same subject area benefit from having an easier grader. This is certainly unfair.

As for teacher and counselor recommendations, as one college admissions officer told us, “after a while, many start to sound the same” and “unless the letter points to something highly unusual about the student, we usually do a quick read-through of the letter and then examine the rest of the file.”  College essays, of course, are highly subjective.

When it comes to the SATs and ACTs, those numbers relate to at least one objective area where all students across the country are tested in the exact same way.

Oddly enough, despite the criticism of the unfairness of these standardized tests, the tests are probably the equitable part of the application process.