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A standardized test answer sheet

Downsides of Reducing the Role of Standardized Exams in College Admissions

Changes to standardized college admission exams that decrease the exam’s ability to predict college preparedness can result in reduced earnings for both high-and low-income students, according to new research by Assistant Professor Evan Riehl.

In the paper, “Do less informative college admission exams reduce earnings inequality? Evidence from Colombia,” Riehl examines the national college admission exam in Colombia, which was redesigned in 2000 to address concerns that the test was biased in favor of high-income students.

The exam overhaul successfully reduced test score gaps between high- and low-income students, but it did so primarily by becoming a worse measure of abilities that are important for college success. As a result, the reform caused students to attend colleges where they were more likely to drop out, thereby reducing labor market earnings for both high-and low-income students.

“The redesign of the Colombian exam included a number of changes that made the exam easier,” Riehl said. “For example, the new exam had fewer multiple-choice options per question and fewer questions overall. As a result, the exam became less informative as a measure of students’ potential to succeed in college. This caused low-income students to attend more selective colleges for which they were academically unprepared, and it displaced high-income students to less-selective schools, which led to a decline in graduation rates for both sets of students.”

The findings show that students have higher graduation rates and earnings when their academic preparation is close to that of their classmates. Well-designed college admission exams can improve the match between students and colleges based on academic preparation.

The results speak to the potential downsides of the movement to reduce the role of standardized admission exams in the U.S. Many selective U.S. colleges have switched to test-optional or test-blind admissions in recent years. At the graduate school level, the Educational Testing Service recently announced that the new version of the GRE will be roughly 50 percent shorter to reduce the burden on test takers. These changes will make it harder for admission committees to identify and admit students who can be successful in their programs.

“Increasing ‘fairness’ in admissions is an important goal, but the overhauled tests in Colombia failed to gauge college preparedness,” Riehl said. “An important takeaway from this research is that colleges must use other admission criteria that will help identify which students are academically prepared to succeed at their institution.”

The paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics.

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