Admissions Fraud and the SAT: Hidden Implications

As you are well aware, there is a huge college admissions scandal that has been brought to life. Forbes calls it “The Worst Crime In College Admissions History Exemplifies The Worst Parenting“. Affluent parents are bribing their children’s way into prestigious universities, falsifying records and SAT scores, faking athletic performance, etc.

Much of the light has been shown on actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin despite the fact that CEOs and other bourgeois people are also implicated (see coverage by CNN, Forbes) . Gender is likely playing into this but the fact that Huffman and Loughlin both belong to the “elite liberal celebrity left” is also playing into the fact that they are the “poster children” of the scandal. However, I’m not interested in that for the purposes of this piece.

Instead, I want to focus on one particular piece of the fraud: the falsification of SAT scores. Most universities require the submission of SAT scores (or alternative standardized test scores) for consideration for admission. My university, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the typical SAT scores are: Reading and Writing 510-590, Math 520-610. For Yale, one of the universities implicated in the controversy, the typical scores are: Reading and Writing 710-800, Math 710-800 (Use Google!). There is substantial difference here. Yale is a prestigious Ivy League university while UNCC is a state school.

Why might these scores be so different? Is it because Yale is substantially harder and so requires a higher standard? I think the social capital that is associated with attending a prestigious school plays a huge role and there is gatekeeping occurring by the university to ensure a certain type of student attends.

Regardless, SAT scores are important components of application packets and one’s SAT can be the make-it-or-break-it moment of a review. Some schools will not even review a application packet if the SAT score is not above a certain score.

According to the Forbes article linked about, Rick Singer (a TV producer indicted on the grounds of facilitating the falsification of records) was paid tens of thousands of dollars to falsify SAT scores to make affluent students more attractive to the desired universities. Given the importance placed on SAT scores, this seems logical (and entirely unethical). But there is another sub-narrative at work here.

The students that are accepted into these prestigious universities on fraudulent grounds are still going to university and, in many cases, perform satisfactorily enough to be awarded degrees.

I want to say here that there is undoubtedly students that earn degrees in the same way that they earn a position at the university: through bribery and deceit. But it is very unlikely that all do. Many likely attend class, complete their assignments, and earn passing grades on their way to their degrees.

What does this have to do with the SAT? Well, if these students are still able to perform well enough in university despite falsified SAT scores (presumably because they could not achieve scores sufficient for consideration). This seems to indicate that SAT scores may not be great predictors of academic success.

And research corroborates that sentiment (see: Geiser & Studley 2002; and various work by William Hiss). Inside Higher Ed has a review article that discusses the finding of the studies, including data of difference between students at SAT-optional universities who submit SAT scores versus who do not (see data below).

Affluent parents (on behalf of their children) are able to take advantage of their socioeconomic status to buy into a system which facilitates the rich to ensure their children’s status mirrors their own.

This goes beyond the unethical activity of the parents, coaches, CEOs, etc. implicated in the admissions fraud scandal. The SAT (and ACT and GRE….) serves as a impedance for low-income students. SAT scores may be correlated to potential academic performance but more often than not, it is more a reflection of a student’s ability to afford tutoring, prep books, and to take the test multiple times. The SAT costs $64.50 (the GRE is $205) and this can be difficult to afford for some students to take once. Students that can take the test multiple times tend to submit higher scores to universities.

SAT scores are highly correlated to income and parent’s education (WashPost 2014; College board via Students that are the first in their families to apply to college and students from poor families are at a distinct disadvantage.

More than 850 colleges have abandoned SAT scores as a consideration and there has been a consequence. Among these universities, enrollment has improved and universities are more accessible to students than ever before. Enrollment of minority students and low income students (students that receive Pell Grants) has substantially increased at these universities opening up possibilities to people that have otherwise been defined access to this means of upward social mobility (CNN money 2015).

If the SAT is not a great predictor of academic success then what works better. It seems to be that high school GPA and the courses taken in high school tend to be a much better predictor (See: work by Joseph Soares; WashPost 2014).

Poor students already have roadblocks in their way: application fees, the cost of relocating, etc. Standardized testing serves as one more means of gatekeeping higher education. Rich families can pass through this gate because they can afford the tutoring, time investment, prep books, and multiple tests, or, as we are aware now, bribing and falsifying their children’s ways in. If the SAT isn’t a great predictor, more universities need to adopt the practice that more than 850 colleges have and abolish the test!

From Inside Higher Ed:

  • The difference in grades between submitters and non-submitters is five one-hundredths of a grade-point-average point.
  • The difference is six-tenths of 1 percent in graduation rates.
  • About 30 percent of students who enroll at these colleges did not submit test scores.
  • Students who do not submit test scores are more likely than those who do to be the first in their families to go to college, non-white, female or Pell Grant recipients.
  • By income group, those with the lowest and highest incomes are more likely than others to apply without test scores. (InsideHigherEd)

Geiser, S., & Studley, W. R. (2002). UC and the SAT: Predictive validity and differential impact of the SAT I and SAT II at the University of California. Educational Assessment8(1), 1-26.

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