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Does subtracting tests equal fair admissions?

Illustration of a word cloud of terms associated with college applications
Illustration: Colored Lights / Shutterstock

Does subtracting tests equal fair admissions?

Assistant Professor Ben Domingue and researcher AJ Alvero talk about their study showing a correlation between essay content and household income.

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.

“As colleges are interested in making changes to the way they do admissions, they need to be thinking carefully about how a reshuffling of the various components of the admissions package is going to lead to potentially new problems, and they also have an opportunity to really study the changes they make and ask whether these changes are yielding the results they want,” Domingue says. “I think we just need to go into this with our eyes open.”

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

In addition to Alvero and Domingue, coauthors of the research featured in this episode were Sonia Giebel, a doctoral student at Stanford; Ben Gebre-Medhin, a former postdoctoral student at Stanford and currently assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College; Anthony Lising Antonio, an associate professor of education at Stanford; and Mitchell L. Stevens, a professor of education at Stanford.


Faculty mentioned in this article: Benjamin Domingue, anthony antonio, Mitchell L. Stevens

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