Fairness in Testing

You want to ensure your school’s enrollment process is equitable and nonbiased. EMA’s SSAT offers a holistic process by giving an objective, scientific measurement within an admission file that has mostly subjective inputs.

Two girls doing homework in the library.

“Well-designed tests do not create differences; they only measure differences.”

Dr. Keith Wright
Dr. Keith Wright
Vice President of Assessment & Psychometrics

Testing Adds More Value

Fairness, access, and objectivity are key concerns in independent school admission—and it’s up to enrollment professionals to ensure practices are effective and equitable for all students. How? By using reliable, consistent assessment tools as part of a balanced approach in the admission process.

Today, taking the right approach is more important than ever to assess and support students two years after pandemic learning losses*. EMA's assessment tools help schools take a holistic view of each applicant. Our admission tools go beyond the SSAT, such as the Character Skills Snapshot for a more whole picture of a student.

We also provide additional enrollment tools, such as the Standard Applications Online (SAO) and Student Prospect Lists (SPL), to make the admission process easier for schools and students. When used as one component—in an overall applicant portrait—the SSAT specifically allows enrollment professionals to compare students' cognitive skills in similar circumstances.

The SSAT offers a significant asset to decision makers inside of a holistic process by giving an objective, scientific measurement with an admission file, which may be influenced by mostly subjective inputs.

*8 months of learning that students around the globe lost due to the pandemic. McKinsey & Company, April 2022.

A male student walking down a busy school hallway.A female student on a school campus.

EMA was founded to provide an equitable process for admission to independent schools.

We believe that standards in testing (and student selection) within a holistic admission process provides the objective insights enrollment professionals need to reduce inherent biases and predict first-year student success.

It's time to champion transformational education journeys. Let’s do it together.

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Our Scientific Approach

Comprehensive science used to develop the SSAT provides a common and objective performance measure to help assess broad academic skills while actively ensuring bias is removed so schools, families, and students can all benefit and succeed.

EMA works diligently to ensure reliability and fairness in our testing.

Strict Standards & Improved Access: Test development and scoring practices adhere to The Standards of Educational and Psychological Testing, American Education Research Association, and National Council on Measurement in Education. Additionally, EMA offers an SSAT fee waiver, complementary access to our testing practice portal, and Admission Academy to assist families facing economic hardship.

Rigorous Test Development & Review:

  • Assessments are written and reviewed by test experts, subject-matter thought leaders, and independent school educators dedicated to equity, fairness, and inclusion.
  • Test subject matter measures the specific criteria intended, guaranteeing quality results that offer a strong prediction of first-year academic performance.
  • Each question receives a full review by our staff, psychometricians, test developers, and external review panels to reduce bias and remove items that all students would not understand or that would elicit negative emotions.
  • Ongoing studies are conducted to stay current on trends, policies, and requirements, and re-evaluate test questions to ensure fairness.

Reliable Score Equity Measurements & Expert Guidance: Statistical procedures are used to adjust form difficulty, so scores from different test forms carry the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. Our experts also provide comprehensive training on how to reduce bias in admissions and properly use the test scores during the enrollment process.

Benefits for Schools and Students

For Students

  • Equity: Offered to all students regardless of gender, geography or affluence.Allows them to demonstrate academic success through an objective, measurable way by removing factors, like referrals, grades, and GPA.
  • Access: Available to all students (with fee waivers and equity kits) and are administered online, in-person, or other methods.
  • Improvement: Students and families gain insights into specific areas of focus for academic improvement.

For Schools

  • Objectivity: Gives equitable means to assess and compare students’ cognitive abilities, regardless of their background or experience.
  • Reliability: Indicator of students’ first year academic success at an independent school.
  • Fairness: EMA-expert led guidance and training in place to help properly use the test score to reduce biases by gender, geography, or affluence.
A female student clutching her notebook.A male student on his laptop.

The Facts Around Standardized Testing

When it comes to the admissions process, opinions around using high-stakes, standardized testing are as different as the population. Concerns of fairness, equity, access, and objectivity relating to standardized testing are key topics in education. However, there’s one thing that opponents and proponents alike can agree on: standardized test scores alone should not be the deciding factor in an admissions decision. Instead, scores should be treated as one component within a holistic process for those assessing students for mission fit at their schools.

At The Enrollment Management Association (EMA), we believe in standards being set in testing and used consistently for students across their many different schools and experiences. Here are some key facts truths about EMA’s view on testing and our admission assessments:

Admission officers have the opportunity to examine test scores at both a national AND local level to compare students against their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, thereby reducing bias.

A Los Angeles Times article validates this: “That process results in higher admission rates for less-advantaged applicants for any given test score, a finding that faculty review committee members said surprised them. Among students with SAT scores of 1000 — the 40th percentile — half of Latinos were admitted compared to less than one-third of whites. The review found similar advantages for students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.”1

Fact 1

Standardized Tests Are Valuable Tools in Efforts to Reduce Bias

While some people believe that standardized tests are intended to predict long-term success, these assessments are actually designed to help predict a student’s academic fit for the school they are applying to.

Recently, an article by MIT Admissions, We Are Reinstating Our SAT/ACT Requirement for Future Admissions Cycles, circulated explaining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s return to the requirement of standardized testing. Explaining their decision, MIT Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services Stu Schmill says, “After careful consideration, we have decided to reinstate our SAT/ACT requirement for future admissions cycles. Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT. We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”2

Additionally, utilizing test score scores—as one component of the overall admissions process—may be even more important than ever to help assess students since grade inflation may be on the rise. According to ACT, the average high school grade point average increased significantly from 2010 to 2021, with most of the gains coming during the last five years. During the same time, composite scores on the ACT fell from 21.0 to 20.3, suggesting that grade inflation is a serious problem.3 Further, admissions research from INDEX shows that over the past 10 years, the percentage of A’s awarded for core classes in the Upper School has increased 47%. These select statistics show that those assessing students for mission fit at their schools need as much information as possible and test scores offer a scientific, research-based read for each student when triangulated against their grades. Given learning gaps through the pandemic, testing data can be useful to make determinations about readiness, but also for placement or for summer enrichment to support the student's success long term.4

That’s not to say scores are the only predictor for success. Affluence, motivation, and aptitude are important factors as well, which is why it’s important to take a holistic approach to admissions decisions.

Fact 2

Test Scores Provide Significantly Improved Ability to Accurately Predict Academic Success

Behind every EMA assessment is a team of professionals dedicated to the goal of equity, fairness, and inclusion. There are subject matter experts, who bring the highest level of knowledge and experience to build a scientific and objective blueprint to help enrollment offices understand if students will perform well in their schools. There are psychometricians and test developers, who spend hours constructing and analyzing test questions and scores to maintain quality and fairness in every test. Further, they adapt state and federal educational requirements and benchmarks into unbiased learning measurements, carefully calculating and adjusting the variability of raw scores into a standardized scale to ensure score comparability. Additionally, our researchers conduct studies and stay abreast of current trends, policies, and requirements for ongoing adjustments as needed.

These professionals remain committed to EMA’s mission of ensuring that every student has an opportunity to a quality education regardless of demographics.

Fact 3

EMA Assessments Are Created by Highly Skilled Professionals Dedicated to Quality and Fairness

Parents put so much pressure on their children to ace high-stakes admission tests, and for good reason. Test scores matter, but in context to many other important attributes. No test score will EVER tell anyone all that they need to know about a child. To get a well-rounded view of prospective students, EMA encourages admission officers to look at a variety of factors, such as academic performance at school, personal interviews, character skills, recommendations from current teachers, and extracurricular activities, to name a few.

This is what is meant by a holistic approach to admissions, something EMA is committed to and the reason why EMA develops tools that assess both cognitive and non cognitive skills of applicants, like the SSAT (cognitive) and the Character Skills Snapshot (non-cognitive).

The Character Skills Snapshot (CSS) is EMA’s online assessment tool that measures seven key character skills identified by schools as important for students' success. Designed to complement other parts of the application, like cognitive test scores (the SSAT), interviews, grades, and letters of recommendation, the CSS highlights students’ skills from their perspectives.

Fact 4

Test Scores Are Just One Factor in a Holistic Admission Decision

We know your job is to make the most informed decision on each applicant with the data in each student’s admission file. And, it's our job to provide you with the right strategic tools, smart insights, and unmatched support to make those decisions with confidence so that you can succeed as an independent school enrollment leader. We’re here to assist you in whatever way your school needs, with more information on how we ensure fairness in testing to talking points you can use, research, training and more.

For more information, contact a representative.

Our Commitment to You and Your School

  1. Wantanabe, T. (2020, February). UC should keep SAT and ACT as admission requirements, faculty report says. Los Angeles Times.
  2. Schmill, Stu (2022, March 28).  We are reinstating our SAT/ACT requirement for future admissions cycles.
  3. ACT, Grade Inflation Continues to Grow in the Last decade, May 2022.
  4. INDEX (Intendent School Data Exchange), May 2022.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the benefit of going test-optional or test blind?

Some of EMA’s schools made the decision to move from requiring admission testing due to the upsetting physical limitations brought by COVID-19. At EMA, we addressed those concerns with new testing modes that do away with large-group, in-person administrations.

We want to make it easier for students to access our assessment, so we’ve developed the SSAT at Home, a secure, convenient option that lets students test from home. Now, SSAT at Home provides our member schools the same level of insight as our traditional paper-based test, without the risks of group gatherings.

Are there other standard methods to assess each independent school applicant’s cognitive ability?

At EMA, we strongly believe in the value of the SSAT. We know of no other assessment based in research and science that: is regularly reviewed by a diverse independent school teacher panel to ensure ongoing quality; offers the level of predictiveness of the SSAT due to constant research and careful test development; offers scientific validity that exceeds its higher education counterparts and continually is named by our members as their most valued tool offered by our association. Again, while we support all schools in their self determination for a process which works best for their needs, we advocate that the removal of SSAT scores may potentially create less-informed enrollment decisions.The standards advocated inside the SSAT’s blueprint align with the academic standards expected in our member schools. Without standard measurement, schools will not have a consistent piece of data on each applicant. Grades are open to bias and have been rising since the Vietnam War in the United States (in an effort to keep more students at home). Recent research suggests that grade inflation in private schools is a concerning new trend.

Does test-optional work?

EMA’s board has a trustee who has long implemented a test-optional strategy. She advocates that students should be able to share an application file that they are proud of, regardless of whether it includes test results. Over the years, she has refined her research and process for students who do not submit test scores in order to consistently review student applicants in spite of the absence of testing. We understand this thinking and believe students should be able to offer their admission file for review without worries about undue reliance on test scores; all students should be guaranteed holistic, individual reviews of their files. However, if scores are not in the file, we suggest that schools find a science-based way to replace that piece of data with an equivalent.

What are the impacts of going test-optional or test blind?

The stated goal for most institutions going test-optional or test blind is one of educational access and concerns about inherent inequity in the U.S. educational system, which results in lower test scores for various student subgroups. At EMA, we know that our admission and enrollment professionals are committed to holistic applicant review and understand the nuances of a student’s experience as they read files and render a decision. Many students from underserved schools, or those facing external pressures that hamper academic performance, can distinguish themselves through the SSAT. Indeed, we are proud of numerous leaders in this country who did just that years ago, when they took the SSAT that opened doors to private education and a purpose-filled life.

Is there a way to draw conclusions around the accuracy of the correlation between SSAT scores and first-year success?

Yes. The SSAT helps determine if a student is a right fit for your school environment and will be able to perform to the best of their abilities right away. The SSAT is not designed to foretell more than that one year of a student’s academic success.

What practices should I develop or adopt if my Head requires us to drop testing?

At EMA, we are working with schools who have made the decision to move to a test-optional or test-blind approach. We advocate the use of an alternate assessment that measures character skills in your applicants (the Character Skills Snapshot) and we have developed professional development and training opportunities for admission and enrollment leaders who must rethink their processes without testing included.

EMA is dedicated to helping member schools create enrollment processes that serve the needs of the school and the student. We encourage you to engage with us about the pros and cons inherent in such a decision. We will help you to build the best process possible without testing, should you decide that is the best pathway for your school.

What happens when you eliminate admission testing requirements?

While the stated goal from many test-optional schools is to increase the diversity of their applicants, research from higher education suggests that elimination of testing will not help to achieve that goal. By eliminating testing requirements, EMA’s member schools lose important science-based data to evaluate student readiness for their programs. School admission leaders will, then, rely on subjective criteria (grades, teacher recommendations, etc.), which can be affected by undue influence of parents and uneven teacher grading practices, as well as inconsistent academic standards from school to school. Without an objective measure like the SSAT, schools’ reliance on this subjective criteria could contribute to inequity.

Why is differentiation important? Why should we rate and rank students in our process?

The rating and ranking of students happens every year in your admission office and the SSAT allows you to know better which students will be successful in your academic program during their first year. The SSAT is one tool to help you make such hard decisions and it allows you to stand behind those decisions with science-based data. In a period of prolonged disruptions in transcripts, grades, and teacher recommendations from COVID-19, we believe SSAT data may prove more valuable than ever before. SSAT scores allow you to better know if students are meeting important standards in reading, comprehension, and quantitative ability.

Specifically, how can a school or a testing organization adjust for bias in standardized testing?

At EMA, we work hard to ensure the SSAT isn’t a biased tool. That said, how admission offices use the SSAT data can create unintentional bias in their decision process. Overuse of SSAT data or inappropriate use of SSAT scores creates concerns for many families. Please educate families about HOW you use all pieces of the admission file to render a decision for each student. At EMA, we encourage transparency with your families, as well as careful management of their expectations via data-driven information (i.e. “At our academy, we are committed to a holistic approach in reviewing each student’s application. We typically admit 10% of applicants each year and the median test scores of our enrolled class are XXX and XXX. We are lucky to have too many qualified students seeking admission to our academy, and we work against bias in our selection process by considering all facets of a student’s profile including their academic readiness for our programs, their character and values. Please take the Character Skills Snapshot and tell us more about WHO you are), and their personal interests and extracurricular strengths”).

How can I ensure fairness in admissions if I have no objective measurement?

At EMA, we believe that the SSAT is an important tool to ensure consistent review of your applicants. If your school plans to go test-optional, we encourage use of our Character Skills Snapshot assessment tool. The Snapshot allows students to self report on seven areas determined important to school success by independent school admission officers. These are: teamwork, intellectual engagement, social awareness, initiative, open-mindedness, resilience, and self control. For schools that have made the decision to go test-optional, we will work with you to develop new approaches, including the use of data science to analyze your past enrollments to project a profile of a successful candidate at your school.

How do we ensure fairness?

Fairness inside any admission process should be a noble goal for your team. Yet, we know the very word “fairness” is concerning, especially for selective institutions that have to make hard choices about who to select from a large number of qualified applicants. How can you be fair to all, if there are too many qualified applicants for too few seats? We believe that your promise to fairly review students using the same pieces of data is as important as your commitment to individual, holistic review of each applicant’s file. For more than 63 years, EMA has developed a gold standard in cognitive academic testing upon which selective schools have relied and we remain proud of how the SSAT has been a tool used to open many doors for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Isn’t it time to recognize that testing is an inherently flawed measurement, and one that perpetuates inequality in education?

There is no doubt that the concept of testing, in general, is under scrutiny. We believe that this is part of a wider trend of using limited, anecdotally driven observations to question scientifically proven issues.

Consider the parallels to healthcare.

Testing within healthcare is universally proven, and an ingrained part of the diagnostic process. Absent testing data from diagnostics like blood tests or x-rays, physicians cannot make a fully informed diagnosis.

Tests confirm what doctors initially diagnose and sometimes reveal new areas of interest for the doctor and patient. These same concepts can be applied to admission testing and the admission process. Testing, when done well and properly managed, adds important information for understanding student academic readiness. Certainly, testing does not provide all of the necessary information but gives standardized data to the admission professional.

At EMA, we work diligently to ensure there is no bias in our test questions. Each SSAT receives numerous reviews by our staff, test developers, and external review panels. We test all questions before using them in order to look for different performances among various subgroups, and we eliminate or revise questions with disparate performance.

Just as blood tests in healthcare do not cause illness, we hold that testing does not promote inequality in education, but simply measures it. In healthcare, numerous racial subgroups see worse trends with most diseases, and we see those same trends in our macro data. It is incredibly important for admission professionals to understand that nuance — the tests reveal inequities in our system. The tests themselves are not biased nor tools of a meritocracy intent on remaining inclusive. Indeed, the history of standardized admission testing is just the opposite and was meant to broaden access to institutions of higher learning.

How do I address issues of equity and justice if my school chooses to continue testing?

First, we believe that the more voices that join in the call for justice and equity, the faster change will occur. We believe all EMA member schools are committed to creating access into their schools and this is an important commitment to state fully and openly with applicants. In very selective schools, there are often questions surrounding fairness. When you have a large number of qualified students applying to only a few open positions, the issue of fairness will loom large and it is critical that you state your position from an ethical standpoint. Families need to hear that you are committed to a process that will treat all students consistently.

Second, feel free to use EMA’s language and statements to underscore your own school’s position with regard to admission testing. Cite our research if it is helpful to educating your families about the value of a standard scientific measurement inside your process. Explain that an overreliance on subjective measures can lead to inherent bias and inequity in student selection and that your school is working hard to address the matter of bias in selection of students.

Third, explain how your school USES the test scores. If you use them to triangulate against grades to get a better read of student academic ability, say so! Families want to understand how you are making decisions and what data will be used to do so.

Are schools able to see the test results by race? Wouldn’t that be a way to solve for bias?

Test scores do not contain any information that would indicate a test taker’s race. Schools may develop their own process to examine application material and infer race but test scores themselves will not indicate this. EMA follows best practice from the American Educational Research Association on how we create and release test taker information to schools. AERA does not condone race-based score releases due to worries about bias and unfairness.

What about parents who have been paying for test prep since younger grades?

It is our view that additional learning never goes to waste. While test prep has received a good deal of negative coverage, we’d like you to think differently about it because students putting in time to better understand and learn skills that will help them flourish in your community should not be damned. The problem surrounding this preparation is one of access and not all children having the same opportunities to experience preparation programs given the high cost associated with them. At EMA, we give all students with a fee waiver free access to our SSAT practice portal so that they may become familiar with the constructs in our test and benefit from advanced knowledge of the SSAT.

You say that testing is a better alternative than more subjective measurements. What do you mean?

There is well documented grade inflation in K-12 schools in the United States. COVID-19 forced many schools to change their grading structures this spring given remote learning challenges, which creates unique challenges for the pool of students applying to independent schools this year. Academic reports will have less reliable, unstandardized information due to the disruptive spring and fall. Additionally, there is ample research which underscores that teachers have not been adequately prepared to remove their own bias from their grading practices. Numerous scholarly articles and research have shown that the students most at risk from teacher bias are black students.

My child simply isn’t a good test taker but is very smart and academically accomplished. Isn’t that enough proof that testing does not work?

Our member school admission leaders are committed to a holistic review of their applicants. All EMA admission leaders rely on more than standardized testing as the determinant for admission to their respective schools; test scores are only one source of data on students that helps to triangulate each student’s academic profile. Admission professionals can compare test scores with grades and teacher recommendations to better understand each applicant’s background for a more well-rounded perspective. FUN FACT: EMA’s current executive director did not do well on the SSAT but ultimately she became a strong student at her boarding school; the SSAT accurately predicted her lack of knowledge and skills for the first year, but did not keep her from greater academic achievements for the rest of her time at that school.