Test Score Abuse Blocks College Access

University Testing

In an effort to attract top-ranking students to public university systems, an increasing number of states base scholarship awards on college admissions test scores. When states employ a test-score cut-off in determining financial aid awards – a violation of the test-makers’ guidelines for proper score use – disproportionately few African American and Latino students qualify for and receive these scholarships. Sizeable racial and socio-economic score gaps result in students of color losing out on millions of dollars in aid.


South Carolina’s Palmetto Fellows scholarship is one example of this type of test score misuse. To qualify for the scholarship (valued at $5000 per year), students must post a 1200 on the SAT or 27 on the ACT, rank in the top 5 percent of their sophomore or junior class, and earn a GPA of 3.5. For the 2000-2001 academic year, only 2.4% (21 students) of the Palmetto Fellows awards went to students of color, even though they were nearly one-third of all 1999 SAT and ACT test takers in the state. Such disparities come as no surprise given the low numbers of minority students that score in the upper tiers of the SAT: less than 10% of African American and Latino students nationally earned 600 or above on the SAT-Math or SAT-Verbal, as compared with more than one-quarter of Whites. Huge racial disparities in Palmetto awards are likely to persist as long as test score cut-offs are utilized.


Another example of racial discrimination in scholarship distribution can be found in Mississippi. At the state’s flagship campus in Oxford, only 3.4% of “academic” scholarships went to African Americans in 1997-98 even though they were more than 10% of the student body. The test-score requirement of a 24 or above on the ACT was a major cause of this disparity: statewide only 275 African Americans met the score requirement in 1997-98 compared with 2969 Whites. Throughout the state university system, as test score cut-off points for scholarships increased, the percentage of African American winners decreased. African Americans received 7.5% of scholarships with an ACT cut-off score of 24-25, 3.3% of those with a cut-off score of 26-27, and only 1.1% when the cut-off score was 28-29. For the most financially valuable scholarships – those worth $2000 or more annually, with ACT requirements of 30 and above – only one in 131 went to an African American.


The misuse of college admissions tests to award financial aid is not confined to South Carolina and Mississippi. Other states that disburse test score-linked scholarships include Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Lawsuits challenging the practice are currently underway in Arkansas and Michigan (see Examiner, Summer 2000 and Fall 2000).


Some scholarship programs, such as Louisiana’s TOPS awards, fail to compile data on the racial and gender composition of financial aid recipients. This allows them to circumvent any potential claims of discrimination that could be made, even though test score cut-offs undoubtedly lead to an inequitable distribution of aid.


The College Board and ACT, Inc. both issue guidelines against using test score cut-offs for high-stake decisions such as admissions and financial aid awards. But they do little to enforce these regulations. In a June 2001 letter, FairTest called on College Board President Gaston Caperton to curb SAT misuse by ending the transmittal of scores to offending institutions (see Examiner, Summer 2001). However, the College Board has failed to address this problem. Similarly, ACT, Inc., is well aware of test score misuse at institutions such as the Mississippi State University system, yet it, too, has failed to take action. Although both organizations claim to be committed to educational equity, their provision of test scores to states with SAT and ACT cut-offs for scholarship qualification contradicts their claims. Apparently, these organizations are more concerned with obtaining fees from sending scores than with the millions of dollars students of color lose when scholarship competitions improperly rely on test scores.