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Does subtracting tests equal fair admissions?

Word cloud with "College Application" at the center.
Illustration: Colored Lights / Shutterstock
May 24 2021
Faculty, Fellow, Research, Stanford

The Varsity Blues scandal triggered outrage about unfairness in college admissions, which goes far beyond the highly paid crimes of a few bad actors. For instance, SAT and ACT scores correlate strongly with wealth. That fact, plus COVID testing difficulties, has led more colleges to go test-optional, hoping to make admissions more fair.

But inequities, it turns out, won’t get fixed that easily. On this episode of School’s In, Ben Domingue, an assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, and doctoral student AJ Alvero join Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to discuss the researchers' analysis of 60,000 University of California undergraduate applications, which found that an essay’s vocabulary and punctuation reflect the writer’s household income. Even more so than SAT score, in fact.

“If you give me someone’s essay, we can predict the SAT score within about 120 points,” Alvero says.

It’s not clear how admissions departments used the essays in making decisions. But “whatever problem you have with the SAT, you’re likely to also [have] with the other features of the application packets,” Domingue says.

That means that simply eliminating standardized tests might not diversify the incoming college class.

Study co-lead AJ Alvero is a 2016 EDGE Fellow, 2018 SIGF Fellow, and a 2020 DARE Fellow.

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