Standardized entrance exams have played a major role in the college-admissions process since the late 1920s, and their significance has grown over the past several decades. The prominence of these tests, however, has been coupled with controversy about their fairness and effectiveness in determining college success.
The ACT and SAT are the most widely used college entrance exams. The SAT, which is administered by the College Board, was first offered in 1901. Initially, the exam was an achievement test designed to identify students' mastery of academic subjects needed to succeed in college. During the late 1920s, the SAT was revamped to measure aptitude or innate intelligence. The change was intended to reduce the advantage of wealthier students who attended schools with a rigorous curriculum and well-qualified teachers.
The American College Testing Program (ACT) was created in the 1950s at the University of Iowa and is now administered by ACT Inc. The ACT measures achievement in the core curriculum areas and is based on academic knowledge and skills typically taught in high school college-preparatory courses. A survey of high school and college faculty is conducted every three years to determine the content included in the ACT. More recently, efforts have been made to align the ACT with state education standards and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
College entrance exams, in particular the SAT, have been targets of criticism for years. Critics claim that the exams are biased against minorities, women and low-income students; are used to unfairly sort students; and contribute to an overly competitive admissions process. Furthermore, students are under pressure to increase their scores for admissions and financial aid purposes; teachers are under pressure to help students score well; and colleges and universities are under pressure to admit students with high scores to improve their rankings and fundraising abilities. Detractors have long argued that far too much emphasis is placed on entrance exams for college admissions that, in their opinion, do not accurately reflect the range of student' talents or their commitment to succeed at the postsecondary level.
The SAT and ACT do have their benefits and supporters. Some college-admissions officials, especially those from large universities, contend that standardized tests are an efficient and fairly effective way to compare students from diverse schools. A student's gradepoint average and class rank
— two other key criteria used for admissions
— can vary depending on the standards of a particular school or teacher. The test developers contend that scoring gaps across student groups are related to inequalities in the K-12 system rather than any bias in the exams. They also present data that suggests the exams are indeed good predictors of whether students will stay in and graduate from college. Supporters point out that despite the weaknesses of the exams, no legitimate alternative has been developed.
The debate over the use and usefulness of college entrance exams resurfaced in 2001 when Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California system, proposed eliminating the SAT I as an admissions requirement to the campuses he oversees. In a speech to the American Council on Education, he argued that the SAT does not have a strong relationship with a student's program of study; has created a high-stakes climate for students, teachers, parents and admissions officers; and is "distorting educational priorities and practices." Atkinson called for using the SAT II subject tests in place of the SAT aptitude test until new standardized assessments are developed that directly tie to the courses required for application to the University of California.
Existing college entrance exams face additional challenges. Some higher education institutions are placing less emphasis on the exams for admissions requirements, and are focusing more on gradepoint average, class rank, courses taken and involvement in activities. This trend is gaining ground as several universities are barred from using racial preferences to increase the enrollment of minority students, who typically score lower on the ACT and SAT than nonminority students. Some state leaders, as well as a consortium of universities, are exploring ways to use high-school performance exams as an acceptable measure of college readiness. Lastly, policymakers and educators increasingly are interested in creating a more "seamless" P-16 education system that might change when students enter postsecondary education.
Despite the criticisms and concerns, the ACT and SAT will most likely continue to play a significant role in college admissions. Nonetheless, the criteria used by colleges and universities for admissions and the emphasis placed on these factors is an evolving concern.