As the pandemic hit, colleges and universities, including Cornell, were forced to adapt their teaching and admissions process to the “new reality.” Many schools switched to fully online instruction in 2020, and also made one particular change to their admissions processes: requirements for standardized test scores.
While most colleges traditionally require SAT or ACT scores from applicants, many schools, including Cornell, waived this requirement as the pandemic started.
This only added to the large numbers of schools that already have phased out the SAT as part of their admissions requirements, which reopens the question of what purpose these test scores actually serve in this process.
The SAT tests have been used as a major tool for college admissions since the mid-1930s.
While the acronym ‘SAT’ originally stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test.” “Aptitude” signified that it was meant to determine inherent ability and intelligence. The College Board officially dropped the acronym in 1997, making “SAT” the name of the tests in its own right.
The tests were originally derived from IQ tests,which have a history of being misused, and have been used as a tool for race science in just the past few years. There has never been any scientific evidence that discrepancies in IQ and standardized test scores reflect an inherent difference in intelligence between different groups.
These standardized tests were originally intended to demonstrate what is known in psychology as “general intelligence,” or “g,”
“g” is a measure of a person’s innate intelligence, made up of reasoning, memory, quantitative processing and more. When psychologists discuss intelligence, this ‘g-factor’ is usually what they mean.
Even as officials from the College Board, the company that makes the SATs, have argued that the tests can be updated to be more equitable and fall in line with what they claim to measure, some psychologists have been unimpressed.
Prof. Robert Sternberg argues that SAT and ACT scores correlate very highly with IQ scores, and considers them to be essentially “IQ tests by another name.”
While there may be correlation between standardized tests and IQ, there are many other factors that influence intelligence and learning. Research has shown that standardized tests can be biased and can reinforce what is known as stereotype threat, as well as lead to differing rates of stress among different people.
Stereotype threat is when test-takers from traditionally marginalized groups actually score worse because of fears of reinforcing negative stereotypes about them. This illustrates how social factors can distort how a person performs on such tests, and thus does not accurately portray innate intelligence of a test taker.
The stress of the testing environment can also cause people to choke, as the stress causes them to have impaired focus, memory recall and overly heightened emotions, all of which can degrade performance.
Given these factors, many researchers, including Sternberg, argue that while test scores can correlate with grades in college, they are unable to predict other factors such as social skills and creativity which allow people to successfully cope with real-world problems.
“Standardized tests can provide a limited prediction of many outcomes: grades, future educational admissions, salary. However, they usually disadvantage people with backgrounds that did not socialize them into the upper-middle-class notion of ‘intelligence’ as a test score,” Sternberg said.
Access to the internet, test-prep courses and financial resources can all play a part in limiting how well students perform on standardized tests, regardless of how intelligent they actually are.
Sternberg agreed that there is some modest correlation between SAT scores and educational outcomes but said that such results should be viewed with caution.
“They are good at predicting grades in college. Schools also usually like students who are easy to teach, and the prediction is better for those who are “socialized into” the tests—those who are prepared for them by virtue of their upbringing and education,” Sternberg said.
He argued that standardized tests also give a limited view of intelligence and the questions they ask are often irrelevant to real-world scenarios.
“Because the tests are used to provide access to opportunities for those who score high, meaning that part of the correlation is an invention of our sociocultural system—we create the correlation,” Sternberg said.
Cornell, like many other institutions during the pandemic, has officially suspended the standardized testing requirement for prospective students until 2024, although a representative from the Cornell Admissions office declined to comment on whether or not this change will be permanent.