In Depth on Test Optional College Admissions

Guest post by Katie Garrett of Garrett Educational Consulting

We are seeing an increasing trend in competitive colleges and universities announcing a shift to test optional admissions to address COVID-19 related logistics challenges and concerns about the equity of standardized tests. 

Historical Perspective on Test Optional

It’s a national rite of passage for high school juniors and seniors to spend long hours preparing to take the SAT and ACT exams with the expectation that a high score will boost their admission chances at top tier schools.  FairTest reports that there were 1,782,820 ACT test takers and 2,220,087 SAT test takers in 2019. 

There are 1000+ test optional colleges and universities in the United States, including some with specific missions – music and art conservatories, religious institutions, nursing schools.  That said, most of the highly competitive National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges still require either SAT or ACT scores as an application requirement. 

The first signs of the test optional trend started with small liberal arts colleges that were able to provide highly individualized reviews of every applicant, versus larger universities who needed “quick tools” to provide an initial filter for their many thousands of applicants.

Wake Forest was one of the first schools to go test optional (2009) and has maintained this policy for over a decade.  Schools who have made the decision more recently include University of Chicago, Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Davidson, Tufts, Bowdoin, Rhodes, Colorado College, Bucknell, and George Washington University.  On April 1st, 2020 the nine-campus University of California system (over 280,000 students) announced that it was suspending the SAT/ACT requirement for Fall 2021 admissions. 

While some schools are making the shift to address COVID-19 related logistical challenges caused by the cancellation of Spring 2020 testing dates, others have evolved their requirements in response to concerns about the educational equity and college preparedness utility of standardized tests. 

Logistical Challenges During Coronavirus

The College Board, the administrator of the SAT, recently announced, “To keep students safe, and in alignment with public health guidance and school closures across 192 countries, we will not be able to administer the SAT or SAT Subject Tests on June 6, 2020. If it’s safe from a public health standpoint, we’ll provide weekend SAT administrations every month through the end of the calendar year, beginning in August. This includes a new administration in September and the previously scheduled tests on August 29, October 3, November 7, and December 5.

ACT, Inc., the nonprofit organization that administers the ACT, similarly announced,The safety of students and test center staff is ACT’s top priority. ACT has rescheduled its April 4 national test date to June 13 across the U.S. in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). All students registered for the April 4 test received an email from ACT informing them of the postponement and instructions for free rescheduling to June 13 or a future national test date.”

Actions Taken by Top Colleges and Universities

There has been a steady increase in the number of institutions that will no longer require SAT or ACT scores as part of the application materials for the next admissions cycle.  Many schools are moving to Test Optional status to provide flexibility to students who have not been able to take the test due to unknown logistical challenges associated with social distancing requirements to address the COVID-19 epidemic. 

U.S. News contributor Anne Claire Carnahan writes, “Test Optional typically means that a university will treat standardized test scores as additive to the student’s profile rather than required. More consideration is given to the other components – transcript, letters of recommendation and extracurricular involvement.”

In announcing its decision to go test optional, Boston University Dean of Admissions stated, “This is a one-year adoption of the policy and we will review it again next Spring.  We are responding to the shifting landscape with juniors and seniors in high school not able to access testing and we wanted to be flexible.”

JT Duck, Dean of Admissions at Tufts, stated, “While the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on SAT and ACT testing opportunities contributed to the urgency of this policy, this decision aligns with our ongoing efforts  to critically examine our policies and to promote maximum access to a Tufts education to high achieving students of all backgrounds and identities from across the country and around the world.”

Middlebury College announced on May 8th, 2020 – “To assist students and families grappling with the pandemic, [we] will no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores.  The change is meant to offer flexibility to students who plan on applying to college in a world transformed by COVID-19.  The new test-optional policy will remain in place on a trial basis for three years, through fall 2023.”  

The announcement continues, “Under Middlebury’s previous text-flexible policy, students could submit scores from either the SAT, the ACT or three SAT Subject Tests.  Under the new policy, if students choose to submit text scores, we will continue to accept these three options. Students who choose not to submit test scores will be given full and equal consideration. Applications will continue to be evaluated holistically based on a number of criteria, including grades, recommendations, extra-curricular activities, essays and jobs.”  

Educational Equity

There are several schools who are making the switch to test optional in an effort to be more inclusive in their admissions process.  Research consistently indicates that the ACT and SAT tests favor students from higher income brackets, certain racial backgrounds and parents with advanced degrees. 

In explaining their test-optional decision, Scripps College said that the new approach, “will allow admission officers to identify and advocate for students with a strong academic profile who may have previously been viewed as less competitive based on their performance on a single exam.” 

Expressing concern, California Governor Gavin Newsome recently stated that standardized tests “exacerbate the inequities for underrepresented students, given that performance on these tests is highly correlated with race and parental income and is not the best predictor for college success.”

In addressing concerns about test equity, ACT spokesman Ed Colby stated, “The ACT test is not discriminatory or biased.  We work diligently to make sure the test questions are not biased against any group of students and are fair to all who take the test. Research has repeatedly shown that ACT scores are predictive of and related to important educational outcomes including college grades, retention and graduation rates.  ACT test results reflect inequities in access to and quality of education” In separate correspondence, Ed Colby added, “ACT scores are the only admission decision factor that provides a common standardized metric allowing colleges to compare students from different schools, states and countries on a level playing field.”

In light of the University of California’s recent test optional decision, it is important to note that the UC faculty released a study in 2019 that says, “standardized exams remain good predictors of students’ success at UC at a time when grades in high schools make it harder to choose potential university freshmen.”

In Conclusion – Test or No Test?

Acknowledging the growing test optional trend, we highly recommend that students keep their options open and stay focused on their test preparations.  While not all strong students are good test-takers, it isn’t wise for a student to limit his or her college and scholarship options just to avoid taking the SAT or ACT.  

The majority of highly selective schools will continue to require SAT/ACT scores for the upcoming admissions cycle.  Strong test performance can still be used to improve candidacy in a highly competitive field and may also position students for attractive merit-based aid. Colleges may assume that applicants who elect not to submit test scores have results that fall below the test score mean of recently accepted classes. 

To the extent that a student’s test scores do not accurately reflect individual academic achievements, contributions, and capabilities, flexibility offered by test optional colleges and universities becomes an attractive option.

Garrett Educational Consulting, LLC is a full-service, academic consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. With over twenty years experience in education and counseling, Katie Garrett guides and supports students and families that are navigating important academic decisions. Services include all aspects of academic advising, comprehensive college planning, independent day school consulting, and boarding school application guidance. 

Garrett Educational Consulting

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