I understand and accept the validity of the major criticism of standardized testing in higher education. Research has found repeatedly something that, subjectively, we all know: test scores are sensitive to the amount of test-specific preparation that the student receives. I do believe that standardized tests measure some useful academic skills, but the truth is that the difference between an ACT 25 and 29 is often thousands of dollars of expensive test prep courses and tutoring rather than a meaningful indicator that the two students are different. In short, money and resources can readily turn a 22 into a 25 or a high-20s to a low-30s.
The reason is simply repetition and familiarity with the exam. No test prep is going to prepare you for the exact questions you will see on the test, but they're excellent at drilling students on what each part of the test is and how to analyze the possible answers. Test prep is possible outside the confines of a paid prep course; however, that requires a very young person to be disciplined enough to figure out what needs to be done (lots of practice questions / sections / tests), how to find them, and regular application of time to them. Not a lot of high school kids lacking guidance are going to do that on their own.
So, with many high profile universities going "test optional" for admissions, the enormous (and very good) University of California system has followed suit and announced plans to phase out the tests. This met with predictable widespread applause from everyone who has internalized the message that testing is bad, testing is racist, and testing is classist. All of these things are true.
At the same time, I think the UC move highlights some of the extreme disingenuousness of the testing-optional trend, and how the headline news stories misrepresent what is actually happening when reporting that another school has made the change. There is a lot going on here, so bear with me.
First and foremost, in the specific case of UC the faculty voted to *replace the SAT/ACT with a new standardized test of the system's own devising.* That option was not endorsed by the regents but it is currently "being studied." Sounds an awful lot like the UC's major concern is not that standardized testing is bad, but that the money devoted to admissions testing by schools and students in California is leaving the state. If standardized tests have the flaws that critics have repeatedly highlighted, replacing one standardized test with another offers no improvement. "But if only the ACT were better" is not the argument; the argument, which has ample support, is that on any standardized test it is possible to game the outcomes with parental wealth.
Second, I have never heard a convincing explanation of what is going to replace standardized testing in admissions. High school grades? Come on. Not only are they inflated (and uneven among different schools) beyond any meaningful interpretation, but in what world are they not subject to boosts from parental wealth? Are the kids who do not have to work during the schoolyear not at a significant advantage to poor kids who do?
What about other applicant attributes? Well, extracurricular activities are a great proxy for family/parental resources. They require time and money, sometimes in very large amounts.
Written application materials? The hiring of coaches, tutors, and editors can dramatically improve an application essay much more than they can boost performance on a test.
A final important point is to read "optional" literally. Every student who thinks his or her SAT/ACT score is impressive is going to submit that score anyway. All the rich people will still have their kids taking the tests. If it helps your file, you will include your score. Nobody's going to ace the SAT and keep it a secret on principle. Not reporting a test score will quickly become a way to identify the files of applicants who didn't feel like their test score was impressive, or assumed they'd do poorly so didn't take it.
In short the process of trying to improve admissions always runs into the same wall. Once we all agree standardized tests have problems, we either do nothing (because we can't think of a better alternative) or we switch to something that has all the same inherent biases and flaws as the SAT.
I have heard all of the same things you have, about how a new and better admissions process needs to consider each applicant's file holistically. It doesn't sound persuasive in my experience. It sounds like a subjective system that creates the ability to see whatever an admissions committee wants to see out of any file. And if you think lawsuits are a problem now, with testing, wait until you see the legal fees and battles that result from "We will read and interpret each file individually and holistically." So either that will turn into a rubric (a score system awarding points for various criteria the applicant meets) or it will be essentially subjective but with some reference to objective criteria that – see above – are all biased on parental income anyway.
I don't have the answer. I wish I did – I would sell it, at great expense for academia. What I do have is enough cynicism about the system to believe that this is a lot more about money than it is about improving admissions. Going test-optional is appealing to two types of schools in particular. One is the low end of schools struggling to get bodies in classrooms, schools hoping that waiving the test will net them a few extra apps and admits. The other is high-end schools (University of Chicago, Harvard, Vanderbilt, etc.) who can afford to do whatever they want because they'll never stop receiving tens of thousands of extremely high-quality apps every year anyway.
For all the publicity the UC decision received – and god knows any media attention is short-lived these days – I'm afraid it created an inaccurate impression of what was decided. "Ahh, no more SATs!" is the gist of the headline scanned quickly on Twitter. But not only will the most well-off and ambitious students continue to take standardized tests in an effort to help themselves, the UC system whispered the part where they are tiptoeing toward making their own standardized admissions test – for which all expenses and revenue would flow to the system instead of out of state. "The pie is bad" is a different argument than "But what if we make the pie, then it's good."
I understand and have always understood exactly what it is about standardized testing that is problematic and biased. What I have never heard is a remotely convincing explanation of what is better. Every part of a student's academic life in high school is influenced by parental resources. Everything. Not just the ACT/SAT. The current arguments about the specific ways in which college admissions are unfair are going to grow substantially in volume and quantity if the ultimate replacement for testing amounts to, well, we just kinda look at the applications and take who we want to take.
Maybe that's a better system – certainly no worse a system – than the status quo of "We take kids based on their parents' ability to buy them a slightly better SAT score than the kids we don't take." The current system is a real hard system to defend, no doubt. It seems terribly basic that entities like the enormous UC system should have a firm idea of exactly what kind of new system they will be using in place of the current one before announcing a plan to jettison it. If, in a couple of years they cannot come up with a plausible alternative and revert to a different, in-house standardized test, then all they have done is pour the old wine in new bottles. Maybe that's the best that can be done, but it's certainly nothing to get excited about. It's not much of an achievement.