Standardized Testing in College Admissions

The Top 3 Things You Should Know

ACT shares in the belief that every student, regardless of their economic status, race or ethnicity, age, gender or gender identity, or geography should have the tools, support and resources they need to succeed in college and career. 

Eliminating standardized testing requirements would, in practice, increase the very inequities that colleges and universities seek to fix.

ACT stands ready to partner with institutions to ensure greater access, fairness, and improved education outcomes so that the dream of higher education is within reach for all who seek it.

Helping to Prevent Inequality 

While addressing inequity issues in our current education system, some have questioned the use of standardized testing as a factor in college admissions decisions. While well-intentioned, the current policy discussion on standardized testing ignores decades of research findings that show test scores are a valid, reliable and effective indicator of students’ readiness for college.  
In January 2019, the University of California (UC) was tasked with examining the use of standardized testing in UC admissions—including whether to remove testing requirements altogether. After a year of study, the UC Standardized Testing Task Force, comprised of 17 faculty members from campuses throughout the system, examined the role of standardized testing in college admissions and concluded that: standardized tests like the ACT help support rather than prevent admissions eligibility for students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and students from low-income populations; and that a test-optional or test-blind policy should not be adopted. After more than a year of careful examination, the UC Regents' decision to change their testing policy contradicted multiple findings from the Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF), as well as the recommendations of the UC Academic Senate, which voted to continue the test requirement by a margin of 51-0. 


More Than Just a Number

In the face of COVID-19 and the widespread adoption of temporary test optional policies, applications to institutions across the country, particularly the Ivy League and other prominent and highly selective schools, soared.  Institutions had to sort through an enormous volume of applicants. Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are commonplace and the supply of testing opportunities has stabilized, admission offices should re-examine their test use policies. While we encourage institutions to do what’s best for their students, we advocate for using all the tools available to make holistic decisions that recognize and account for the inherent inequities in the education system. 

Standardized Testing
  • Improves access and opportunity 
  • Counters grade subjectivity and inflation
  • Accurately predicts Performance
  • Verifies appropriate course placement
  • Identifies achievement gaps

University of California Task Force Findings

  1. Standardized testing does not worsen disparities for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups
  2. Standardized tests are better predictors of a student’s first-year success, retention and graduation from college than high school grade point average 
  3. Eliminating testing would increase emphasis on a student’s high school grade point average, which is already impacted by varying grading standards and grade inflation.

Bridging Achievement Gaps

Eliminating standardized testing does not address the systemic issues at the root of educational inequities in our education system. Standardized testing provides critical data on underserved groups that help identify achievement gaps, target areas for growth and increase college readiness. School administrators cannot fix what they do not see. Standardized testing provides a valuable window into student outcomes.


Dedicated to Equity for All Test-Takers

Our desire is to listen to, learn from, and partner with fellow equity advocates to help students succeed, no matter their background or zip code.

There is much work to be done to solve the educational disparities that disproportionately affect African American, Latin(x) and Native American students, among others, and we know that it can be done.  While the fairness of the ACT is verifiable, we must do more than just recognize that disparate scores are the result of systemic inequities. We must transform the system. ACT research confirms that when we control for course selection and course rigor, glaring ACT score gaps between groups close dramatically.  

ACT takes extraordinary steps to guard against bias and to ensure the ACT is fair to all students, a process which can take up to three years to produce a single test form.   

  • First, all questions and passages are evaluated at multiple stages, by both internal and external experts, for biases in content, wording, and cultural assumptions. (External review panels reflect gender, ethnic and cultural diversity throughout the country.)   
  • Additionally, ACT test items are evaluated statistically for evidence of differential performance by one racial/ethnic group or gender during preliminary testing to ensure that students with the same level of knowledge will have the same probability of answering any given question correctly.   
  • Finally, the fairness of ACT scores is evaluated by examining the relationships between scores and educational outcomes for various student groups. This research has shown repeatedly that ACT scores accurately predict success in college, not just in the first year but throughout—in terms of grades, retention, and graduation. 

Through collaborative partnerships with non-profits and advocacy organizations, ACT is also providing the following programs and resources to help improve access to higher education and bridge opportunity gaps for students traditionally underrepresented at colleges and universities.

    On average, ACT distributes more than $32 million worth of fee waivers each year. From the 2014-15 to 2018-19 school years more than 2.3 million eligible students used fee waivers to register for more than 3.1 million ACT tests, for a total of $161.4 million in waived registration fees. This year, eligible students are receiving twice as many fee waivers to pay for the ACT test (from two to four). These students can send an unlimited number of score reports to colleges and universities for free. 
    All students can access free test prep resources as well as college and career planning tools through MyACT, the student registration site. Additionally, students who test with a fee waiver receive free access to The Official ACT® Self-Paced Course, Powered by Kaplan®, which includes on-demand tutorials, 2,000 ACT test questions, 16-hours of expert teacher-led courses, off camera support, and five full-length ACT practice tests.
    Students who have documented disabilities are offered appropriate accommodations during the tests. Learn more here.
    Assistance is offered to support students who are English learners. These supports may include extended time on the test, an approved word-to-word bilingual dictionary, receiving test directions in their native language, and testing in a comfortable and familiar environment.

What People Are Saying

In an effort to address systemic issues of inequity in the American higher education system, some have questioned the use of standardized test scores as a factor in college admissions decisions. In January 2019, the University of California (UC) Academic Senate was tasked with examining the use of standardized testing in UC admissions—including whether to remove testing requirements altogether. 

Below are several key proponents who support keeping standardized testing in UC admissions. These supporters range from across academic institutions, community-based organizations and major national newspapers.

“UC system should keep the test scores. Doing otherwise because of political or legal pressure or even personal beliefs would belie the very foundation of great universities, which pride themselves on openminded inquiry and fact-based decision making.”

– Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

“The key to expanding college opportunity isn’t to eliminate testing but to demand more choice and accountability in K-12 schools.”

– Wall Street Journal Editorial Board

“…dropping standardized tests such as SAT/ACT requirements from admissions will create unintended harms against children growing up in underrepresented communities. It exacerbates the issues of “grade inflation” and serves as a bandage to cover up the education achievement gap...”

– Yukong Zhao, President, Asian American Coalition for Education

“The fairest reading of the evidence is that the SAT and the ACT have tremendous value, precisely because they are the only truly uniform, objective and predictive ways to compare candidates with widely varying academic and socioeconomic backgrounds.” 

– Jonathan Wai, Professor of Education Policy, University of Arkansas


“Going test-optional makes us feel like we’ve removed a barrier to college access, but it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics that brought about the test gap in the first place.”

– Yoon S. Choi, CEO, College Spring

“While tests should not be the sole basis for admissions, studies show they have real predictive validity and should indeed be part of admissions processes.”

– Alex Small, Professor of Physics, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

“What matters more than a decision on whether to stop using standardized tests is a broader push to help minority students get better high school educations.”

– San Diego Union Tribune Editorial Board

“I believe that as a practical matter, eliminating the tests could make inequities worse.”

– Kim A. Wilcox, Chancellor, UC Riverside


“The significant predictive connection between standardized test scores and multiple metrics of student success provides a means for UC to target assistance towards students who most need supportive services, particularly URMs and first-generation students.”

– Kristin H. Lagattuta, Ph.D., Chair, Davis Division of the Academic Senate & Professor, Department of Psychology and Center for Mind and Brain

“…if these tests were eliminated, it would put more emphasis on the high school grade point average, which is not standardized and more dependent on uncontrollable factors.”

– Louis Santiago, Chair, Executive Committee College of Natural and Agricultural Science UC Riverside

“Due to differences in grading systems and school curricula, it is difficult to compare California applicants with non-resident students. Standardized tests provide an opportunity for direct comparison.”

– Deborah Swenson, Chair, Committee on Admission and Enrollment UC Davis

“Premature elimination of the SAT would increase reliance on GPA in the admissions process, a crucial consideration at a time when, as the report stresses, grade inflation has made high school GPA less valuable as a predictor of student success in college, a trend that would likely be further exacerbated if standardized test scores were dropped as an admissions criterion.”

– Henning Bohn, Chair, Academic Senate Santa Barbara Division


"The elimination of SAT/ACT would adversely affect historically underrepresented student populations. This is because the removal of SAT/ACT requirement would lead to higher weights being placed on high school GPA in the admission process.”

–Tom Hansford, Chair, UC Merced Division Chair – Committee for Diversity and Equity

"…ACT/SAT scores enable the University to admit more disadvantaged students than it could without the scores because the University is able to contextualize individual test scores.”

Sharmila Majumdar, Ph.D., Chair, UCSF Academic Senate

Frequently Asked Questions

Standardized testing is a key tool to compare academic achievement across schools, districts and states, allowing school administrators and state leaders to clearly understand whether students are meeting educational standards and where achievement gaps exist and must be addressed. Among the indicators offered by standardized testing is global competitiveness and advancement—the data reveal the knowledge of our nation’s students compared to those of other countries as a measure of workforce development and advancement. In addition, research has shown that the combination of high school grades and test scores provide the single best predictor of a student’s first-year college success, which is why standardized testing is widely used in college admissions decisions.

...the use of standardized testing in the UC admissions process?

Then President Napolitano commissioned the Standardized Testing Task Force. Questions examined by the task force included whether standardized testing fairly promotes diversity and opportunity for students applying to the UC system, and whether standardized testing is a predictor of student success. The UC Standardized Testing Task Force concluded that: standardized tests like the ACT help support rather than prevent admissions eligibility for students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and students from low-income populations; and that a test-optional or test-blind policy should not be adopted. However, the UC Regents decided to change their testing policy despite the many findings from the Standardized Testing Task Force (STTF) and the recommendations of the UC Academic Senate, which voted to continue the test requirement by a margin of 51-0.

...testing requirements altogether?

While some universities were going test optional prior to COVID-19, the pandemic swung the pendulum towards test optional policies. It may never swing all the way back, but it’s clear from third-party research and ACT research that schools want students to have a choice in the matter.  
Proponents of test optional policies say that standardized tests should be abandoned because certain groups of students perform worse than others. They falsely claim that the test is biased because of this. ACT has known for years that there are performance differences on the test, based on a student’s race/ethnicity, income-level and whether students are the first in their family to go to college. However, the test does not cause these differences to occur. In fact, these differences can also be demonstrated across other (more subjective) admissions criteria, like HSGPA and admission essays. For instance, students who report household incomes of >80k are 2.4 times (140%) more likely to have a 3.75 HSGPA or higher as compared to students who reported an income of < 36k.  Similarly, students whose parents have a graduate degree are 242% more likely to have a 3.75 HSGPA, as compared to students whose parents did not complete high school. And lastly, in a recent Stanford study, researchers found that wealthy students tended to write better admission essays than those with less financial privilege. After reviewing 240,000 essays submitted by 60,000 applicants, they found a stronger correlation between household income and the quality of the essay than what can be observed in the relationship between income and standardized test scores. The differential performance we observe among student groups who take the ACT are also observed in almost every educational measure. This is why a holistic review, including multiple academic and non-academic measures, is so important. 

...from college admissions?

Yes. A sweeping decision to reduce or eliminate the role of standardized testing will create unintended consequences that need to be fully considered. For example, such a move could increase grade inflation. Grade inflation is already a problem, particularly in wealthy districts that provide college counselors and offer tailored learning resources, and where assertive parents are often willing to negotiate with teachers. Relying more heavily on grade point averages will put more pressure on schools to give students good grades, making admission decisions more subjective and less fair.

ACT is a nonprofit, research-based organization with over 60 years’ experience helping people achieve education and workplace success. The organization continually innovates to ensure fair and accurate measures of college and career readiness and to provide high-quality, scientific evidence in support of education and workforce practices, solutions, and services. ACT takes great care in ensuring that the ACT test is fair to all students, putting all questions through a thorough internal and external review process and systematically studying test results across demographics and geographies to guard against any questions that might be biased against a particular group of students. In addition, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning—a division within the organization—is focused entirely on closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement for underserved populations through the power of partnerships, research, accessibility and social impact. Learn more at:

ACT constantly researches, innovates and expands its free educational tools and test preparation resources to help students on their journey to higher education and beyond. The organization provides more test-prep resources to students than ever before, offering access to free online learning resources such as video lessons, interactive practice questions, full-length practice tests, education games and other test prep materials.

Additionally, ACT distributes more than $32 million worth of fee waivers each year and provides a year’s worth of free, high-quality test prep to qualifying students as part of the fee waiver program. Students who have documented disabilities have access to accommodations on the ACT test to ensure they have equal opportunity to show their academic readiness. ACT also offers test support to U.S. students who are English learners and whose proficiency in English may prevent them from fully demonstrating the skills and knowledge they’ve learned in school.

...indicating students’ level of college readiness, how else does the ACT help within the admissions process?

ACT scores are also widely used by colleges in course placement, student guidance and scholarships decisions—critical components to ensuring that students succeed on campus. Such use helps ensure that students enroll in courses in which they’re ready to succeed, are aware of majors and careers that match their interests and skills, are eligible for scholarships and are better positioned to graduate on time.