An Open Letter to The Editors of US News and World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings
To The Editors of US News and World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings:
We write today requesting you end the practice of using average SAT and ACT scores of incoming students to calculate your Best Colleges rankings. Using average scores of incoming students to rank an institution has never made sense, but is even more preposterous during a deadly pandemic. The Best Colleges ranking has been the leading college rankings publication for years, and its impact on consumers and institutions alike cannot be overstated.
The ongoing pandemic has made it difficult if not impossible for many to take the SAT or ACT. At the same time, a rise in test-blind and test-optional admissions policies has made it difficult to compare institutions using this metric. The Fiske Guide to Colleges recognized these challenges and will not be including test scores in its annual evaluations. “Rather than publish inaccurate and misleading data, we have decided to omit any reporting of score ranges for the foreseeable future,” Edward B. Fiske, editor of the guide, told Inside Higher Ed in March. “To do otherwise would be a disservice to our readers.” Not only does US News use average scores in its rankings, but has penalized colleges that go test blind or test optional by assigning them arbitrarily low average SAT/ACT scores. Many colleges and universities decided to be considerate during what has been an immensely difficult year for high school students and now they are being punished within the rankings for doing so.
The pandemic and changes in admissions policies have made it difficult to rank institutions on this measure, but even beyond this year, the use of scores is problematic. Standardized admissions test scores say nothing about the quality of a college’s education, only how selective their admissions process is. Research shows that SAT and ACT scores aren’t reliably predictive of students’ college outcomes.
Standardized admissions tests benefit high-income and predominantly white students who can afford expensive tutoring—teaching them tricks to taking the tests—or to take the exams multiple times to improve their scores, while low-income students and students of color don’t have access to the same resources. As a result, using test scores in selective college admissions disadvantages these students. Any organization that wishes to advance racial and socioeconomic equity in education should understand this. By using the test scores in the rankings, US News is rewarding and helping perpetuate a gatekeeping tactic that is discriminatory.
The use of this measure in the rankings has also helped spur a “merit aid arms race” among selective colleges that are aiming to raise their average scores in order to improve their rankings. This arms race has helped shift the purpose of financial aid from helping those students with the most financial need to helping those with the best grades and highest test scores, typically the least needy students.
Ending the use of standardized admissions test scores in rankings would find support among Americans nationwide. A nationally-representative survey from New America shows that two-thirds of Americans agree with colleges’ decision to go test-blind and test-optional this year. Of those who agreed, around half say that institutions should remain test-optional or never use standardized admissions test scores in the future. Just 7 percent say that standardized admissions test scores should factor heavily in admissions decisions going forward. If more colleges follow this lead, it will only make US News’s methodology more out of touch with the publics’ interest.
As Best Colleges continues to be influential in the decision-making process for students and families, there needs to be more integrity in the data inputs and methodology and a good start would be removing the average SAT and ACT score category from the rankings methodology. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to criticize this practice. But with the many challenges students and colleges have faced during the pandemic, removing standardized admissions test scores is simply the right thing to do.
The Education Trust
Institute for Higher Education Policy
National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)
The Hope Center
The Institute for College Access & Success
USC’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice