No event has been more disruptive to admissions in the last 50 years than the new test-optional policy adopted by the vast majority of colleges in response to the COVID-19 pandemic of the last two years.
Although this policy was essentially forced on schools by the pandemic, colleges now present it as a service to applicants. But is it?
At Blue Stars, we’ve actually observed increased student anxiety in reaction to colleges going test-optional. And so we began to wonder: just who benefits from this new test-optional policy?
Beginning with the late 1960’s, most four-year colleges have required either SAT or ACT scores as part of their application process. Then, in the 2010’s, a small group of colleges began dropping the requirement, finding it prohibitive for economically-disadvantaged students who can’t afford prep courses, tutors, or materials, all of which closely correlate with higher scores.
The test-optional trend had already gained steam when the pandemic struck, with about 20% of colleges (including the University of Chicago) adopting such policies. When COVID made SAT/ACT test sittings impossible for many applicants, most colleges dropped the requirement.
At this point, about 76% of colleges – including top-tier institutions – do not currently require test scores. Most of these schools will keep the policy in place until at least 2023.
The Positive View of Test-Optional Policies
The test-optional movement is considered a success by opponents of standardized testing who believe that the SAT and ACT requirement disadvantages under-resourced students. A test-optional policy, they believe, will lead to a more diverse applicant pool. They consider test-optional policies to be inclusive and democratic because they help students in the following categories:
Underrepresented racial and ethnic groups
Students who are the first in their family to attend college
Women (who, statistically, score worse on tests but get better grades than men)
Students from low-income families
Students who don’t “test well,” and
Students with disabilities that make taking the tests extraordinarily difficult
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest.org), for example, has labored since the 1980’s to end standardized testing in admissions. And while the new policy does not eliminate the tests altogether, FairTest.org has applauded it as an advance toward equity in admissions.
What Do Colleges Gain from the Test-Optional Policy?
Beyond increasing student body diversity and coping with the pandemic, college administrators realize that the test-optional policy – believe it or not – actually helps them increase their US News & World Report and other rankings. The higher the college is ranked, the better its brand. With a better brand, it can attract more students. So goes the thinking.
While college administrators pretend to ignore college rankings, they know that parents and students use them in selecting colleges. Administrators also need to maintain rankings to please alumni and donors. In addition, a rise in rankings helps justify increases in tuition and the compensation of the college’s administrators, faculty, and staff. In other words, colleges have their own agenda, not necessarily in the interests of applicants, as they negotiate this new, disrupted admissions landscape.
So how does a test-optional policy upgrade a college’s rankings?
First, test-optional policies encourage more students to apply. Since freshman class size seldom varies significantly from year to year, the more applications a college receives, the more selective the college appears to be, simply by increasing the denominator of the ratio of admitted students: applicants. Admission rate is a key metric in college rankings: the lower a college’s admission rate, the higher its rankings.
Second, test-optional status also boosts rankings by raising the average test scores for the college. Since scores are optional, and applicants with high scores will still submit them, rankings based on test scores can only be calculated using these higher scores. The college again “looks better” in the rankings.
Third, colleges make a significant amount of money each year based on application fees alone (millions of dollars annually for some top schools), so they don’t have much incentive to discourage applications from students with low test scores who are unlikely to be admitted. Having a test optional policy encourages more students to think “Why not apply? Maybe I have a chance.”
What Does Test-Optional Really Mean?
In public statements about their test-optional policies, colleges assure students their chance of admission is not diminished if they do not submit scores. But is this really the case?
Harvard, for example, states that it has a “whole-person” admissions process and does not admit “by the numbers.” Standardized tests are just one factor among many, including extracurricular activities, community involvement, employment, and family responsibilities.
Harvard further specifies that “students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process.” At first glance, it seems it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether a student submits their scores.
In fact, Harvard adds this specific advice that seems targeted to economically disadvantaged students, implying that these will be the students who may not submit their scores : “… if you feel your test scores do not fully represent your strengths, perhaps because of a lack of resources at your school or limited opportunities to prepare for or take the tests, you could note this fact in your application to provide context.”
Given this language, one can assume economically disadvantaged students are the ones who won’t be penalized in the admissions process for not submitting scores. What does an applicant do, however, if they do not fit into this pool?
Interestingly, Harvard also states: “students are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.” Yet it provides no specific guidelines for deciding whether a particular SAT or ACT score would qualify as this material, making the choice to submit feel treacherous to students.
Anecdotal evidence from the 2020 admissions cycle indicates it may not be a good idea for affluent students to omit their scores: admissions officers seem to conclude that these students have had test prep assistance and still received scores too low to submit: after all, if the scores were “good,” wouldn’t the student have submitted them?
It turns out that despite all the good intentions behind the test-optional policy, it may be producing the opposite of its stated purpose – increasing unfairness rather than reducing it by adopting subjective, arbitrary assumptions about applicants.
Test-optional policies have also significantly increased the anxiety levels of applicants, now saddled with even more high-stakes, non-rule-based decisions to make – as if students needed any extra tasks during the already overwhelming college application experience.
One is left to wonder: have colleges thought about the psychological impact of this policy on applicants?
Nonetheless, the policy is what it is for now.
So how does an applicant excel under these conditions? How does a student decide whether to submit SAT or ACT scores? And is there an alternative to this ad-hoc, vague, stress-inducing policy?
Stay tuned for Part 2!