Passing on standardized tests
Student-success stories show the shortcomings of the ACT and SAT.
Miguel Angel Escobar Garza excelled at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, graduating in 2015 with a GPA north of 3.0. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at his standardized-test scores.
English is Garza’s second language, and the barrier was pronounced on the English portion of the ACT; his math score was nearly twice as high.
Those scores were one reason he didn’t plan on going to college. Then, a mentor who saw his potential connected him to the Center for Urban Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Today, Garza is a first-generation college student majoring in electrical engineering technology. He also works as a peer mentor for other men of color enrolled at the University.
“Math is a pretty universal language,” he said.
Standardized tests are polarizing in the education world. Critics have long argued that they aren’t an objective measure of students’ academic ability, and research shows that average SAT scores line up linearly with family income and parental education level.
Now, proposed legislation in the Colorado General Assembly could end the debate once and for all by allowing for test-optional admissions at state universities. House Bill 1067 would amend state statute to allow, instead of require, public institutions of higher education to use standardized test scores in their admissions criteria. The bill would also require institutions to submit an annual report on their freshman cohorts that includes a breakdown of students’ race and ethnicity and the percentage of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students, like Garza.
He was born in El Paso, Texas, but grew up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. As a teenager, he crossed the border daily at 6 a.m. to attend a U.S. school that started at 9 a.m. When he missed the bus, he walked 3 miles to school. It was worth it, he said, to attend a school with superior academics, technology and lunches compared with schools on the Mexican side.
“It was tough, (crossing the border) on my own,” he said. “I have two brothers who are younger, and they were about to do the same, but my parents wanted to do things different. That’s why we decided to come to Colorado.”
While the aspiring engineer is close to the American dream of graduating, getting a good job and achieving social mobility, his path was almost short-circuited by a test he took at 17.
Count Ally Garcia, Ed.D., assistant dean and director of MSU Denver’s TRIO Student Support Services, as one of many administrators who would prefer to toss the tests all together.
“I don’t think standardized tests are an accurate assessment of a student’s ability to be successful,” Garcia said. “I worry that we’re creating more haves and have-nots, and it’s usually more people that are middle-income and white who are set up to be successful.”
More than a score
At MSU Denver, Colorado’s only modified open-access university, students who are at least 20 years old with a high school diploma or GED are automatically admitted by state statute. With an average student age of 25, the University admits most students without seeing their test scores. It’s the 20% of Roadrunners who enroll at age 19 or younger who have to submit scores, as required of all public four-year universities in Colorado.
University leaders have made a data-based case for excluding the ACT and SAT, as an analysis of MSU Denver data showed high school GPA to be a better predictor of student-retention rates than test scores.
Through her work at TRIO, Garcia serves students who are first generation, low income and/or have a disability. Many of the students TRIO serves struggled on standardized tests. The wraparound service looks beyond the numbers and conducts interviews with applicants to gain a more holistic view of a their potential. The student’s stories often reveal hard-to-quantify work ethic, life skills and ability, Garcia said.
Consider Safiya Abdulhakim, a Denver South High School grad who scored a 14 on the ACT.
“I understood how important the test was because I had a lot of tutors,” she recalled of her high school experience. “I had a tutor that helped me study on the weekends and came to the library with me. I feel like I did everything I could do.”
At MSU Denver, Abdulhakim was given the opportunity to show everything she was capable of achieving. With support from TRIO, she graduated in 2020 with a 3.27 GPA and a degree in aviation and aerospace management. Now, she works as a service dispatcher for United Ground Express at Denver International Airport.
Abdulhakim, Garcia said, was one of the hardest-working students she has ever encountered.
Making college personal
Eliminating standardized tests in college admissions is personal for Garcia. She went to a National Blue Ribbon middle school in Pueblo and graduated near the top of her class at a well-regarded high school, but a low ACT score limited her college options. Despite getting A’s in college-level courses in high school, she was denied by the private college recruiting her to play softball because of her test scores.
Even now, having earned a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology and a Master of Teaching from MSU Denver as well as a doctorate in education from the University of Denver, Garcia is tormented by the tests she took as a teenager.
“I was always really embarrassed by my ACT score because I knew I was a good student,” she said. “I was taking accelerated classes and doing well, but I just wasn’t a good test-taker.”
Like Garza and Abdulhakim, Garcia’s postsecondary successes underscore how standardized-test scores can fail to gauge someone’s ability or potential.
“People can be creative problem-solvers or have strong time management and integrity because they’ve been working since they were young,” Garcia said. “Those are skills we could assess much better than how someone scored on a test.”