The Trouble With Test-Optional Admissions: What the Experts Are Saying

The Trouble With Test-Optional Admissions: What the Experts Are Saying

Most colleges have now either gone test-optional or test-blind for this school year.

Students and parents are wondering what that means, exactly–for those who have taken the tests, and those who haven’t.

It also brings up questions about how to proceed with scheduling, studying for, and actually taking the SATs/ACTs during the pandemic, as well as the impact on merit scholarships. 

Here’s what experts in higher ed had to say about it all. (Comments have been edited for length and clarity.)

 

Does Test-Optional Really Mean It’s Optional to Take the SAT/ACT?

According to the National Association for College Admission Counselors (NACAC), as a result of the cancellation of SAT/ACT test dates, more than 1,450 U.S. colleges and universities have said they are switching to test-optional.

This means that test scores at these schools will not be needed when evaluating a student for admission.

The organization released a statement in August, signed by representatives from more than 470 schools (so far), affirming that the schools that signed will not penalize students if they don’t take them.

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of NACAC, told Inside Higher Ed: “I decided to create the statement and circulate it among schools because I have heard from our high school counselor colleagues that their students just don’t believe that test-optional schools really mean it,” he said.

“While not all of the schools that have gone test-optional will sign up, I think building a coalition of the willing is important.”

 

What About Students Who Have Already Taken the Tests?

Jed Applerouth, Founder and CEO of Applerouth Tutoring Services, says he’s very concerned about the students who studied for and took the SAT and ACT only to have the results “nullified” after: 

“If estimates are right, well over a million rising seniors have already taken an official SAT or ACT test. Over 140,000 students, the majority of whom were rising seniors, took the June and July ACTs.

The notion that we are going to wholesale invalidate the test scores of all the students who have worked hard and sacrificed to achieve their goals seems misguided.  

College admissions officers seem unlikely to want to deny students credit for the work they’ve already put in.

In this spirit, hundreds of colleges have decided to give full credit for this year’s AP exams that covered only a portion of the normal content in an open-book, truncated exam format.

Admissions officers don’t want to penalize students for factors well beyond their control.

Admissions officers know how to read holistically and admit students using a variety of factors. 

Some students submit SAT Subject Test scores, while others do not. Some list their AP/IB scores, while others do not. Admissions officers are nimble enough to shift the admissions calculus based on the information available.”

Impediments to Going Test-Blind 

“The critical factor is that admissions tests are one of the strongest predictors of performance in college.

GPA is unquestionably the most robust predictor of academic performance in college, but SAT and ACT test scores are close behind, and in concert, these two factors make an even stronger prediction of grades and graduation.

This year, the pandemic has affected GPA for many students. 

Many students were shifted to a Pass/Fail grading model or had their GPAs frozen once the migration to Zoom-based instruction took place.

Some students have struggled to maintain their pre-pandemic level of academic performance during this period of remote learning.

There’s certainly more remote learning ahead for many students. As a result, during this admissions cycle, testing may be more important for certain students.” 

Does One Size Fit All?

“During this pandemic, everyone has to make decisions that are right for them. The testing agencies are working hard to create a safe testing environment, and our students who have tested in-person this summer have reported feeling safe and being socially distanced during their ACT administrations.

Whether to participate in a testing administration is a similar decision of whether to pursue in-person instruction or opt for remote learning during the academic year.  

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If they plan on testing, students will have to understand that some measure of flexibility is needed.

Things change quickly during a pandemic, and just as schools are shifting their plans for opening, testing plans can change based on the ground conditions.

Thankfully there are more testing dates this fall than at any prior time in history, so even with social distancing requirements, students will have opportunities to complete their testing.

In some cases, students will have to travel farther than normal to secure a testing site for a particular test date.”  

 

The Need to Re-Evaluate: Is Test-Optional Enough?

David Rion, Director of College Guidance at the Loomis Chaffee School, says he’s beginning to think test-optional isn’t enough:

“As we hear stories of students driving across country to take a July ACT, or see news articles of testing sites being potential super-spreader locations, and as students take practice tests in 90-degree rooms with masks on so they can be ready for testing conditions, we need to step back as a community and re-evaluate.

If students were rational actors, they would see colleges are going test-optional, realize that testing in a big room is a public safety risk, and they would opt out of testing completely.

But students aren’t rational actors. They have hope, and they look for every edge they can find. If they think they have a 10% chance of getting a score that will help them at the school of their dreams, they are taking that test. We need to save them from themselves.

Around the country we see empty baseball fields, Zoom government hearings, colleges going online in the fall, and yet we’re asking students to take an in-person test in a month?

And colleges, this is what I want you to hear most. Because students aren’t rational about this, you ARE asking them to test, unless you’re test-blind. 

That’s not your fault or your intention, but to many students it’s the reality.”

These Things Can Both Be True

“Let’s say that the Dean of Admissions at Red University was quick to go test-optional this spring. She’s clear that her office won’t hold NOT testing against students (though, ahem, Red U’s coaches keep asking their recruits for testing).

She supports her office working from home this fall, and Red U won’t have in-person classes until January at least. She shares ‘Wear a Mask’ memes on Facebook, and hasn’t eaten inside at a restaurant since March.

The students at Green High School love Red University. They’ve been test-prepping since winter, and have had 3 SATs cancelled on them. They would love to just opt out of testing, but based on their PSATs and Red U’s SAT average, they feel compelled to take the test.

They obviously may send their scores to a variety of colleges, but the main reason they are testing in August, is because Red U will consider their score.

I get that going test-blind is unfair to a student who got a great score last December. I get that it’s unfair to strong testers who have had transcript bumps along the road.

But it’s also unfair to put students in this position. To choose between the safety of their community and the chance at a better shot at their dream school.”

The Adults in the Room Are Responsible

“Please don’t ask high school students to sit in the same room with a group of people for four hours.

Something your own college wouldn’t allow this fall, something that you wouldn’t do in your personal life.

And understand that going test-optional will make your school feel absolved of responsibility here, but in the end, we adults in the room will all be responsible for not shutting down testing completely in the coming months.”

 

Misuse and Overuse of Test Scores

Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest, says test-optional is just one approach to combat the misuse and overuse of test scores: 

“While the question of optional vs required materials has long been debated, the pandemic has made it more pressing and revealing as the issue of access has transitioned from a question of wealth, information, and resources to one that brings those things under the stark light of risk of illness and massive economic disruption.

We at FairTest and other test-optional advocates have never argued for test-optional over test-blind. 

It’s also worth noting that colleges choose what elements they will require and which they will consider if submitted.

Some colleges will not consider the submission of any supplemental materials such as the number of AP classes a student took, a movie the student made, the number of hours worked at Foot Locker to support family, the distance traveled to get to school each day, a recording of a violin recital, an article published in the newspaper or even demonstrated interest.

Is the refusal to consider these for admission unfair? In a normal environment, test-optional might be a better policy for some colleges and test-blind might be what serves others better.” 

Decoupling Testing from Scholarships

“In the current environment, where it’s estimated that perhaps 75% of seniors have not had the opportunity to take a required admission test but wealthy families are flying their students around the country to take a test, the most equitable thing is to implement test blind policies rather than simply test optional. It’s not only fairest, it’s also safest for students. 

Colleges should not only be going test-blind if possible (test-optional if not possible to implement test-blind) but should also be decoupling testing from scholarships.

Colleges all have scholarships for a variety of factors ranging from boy scout or ROTC membership to coming from a particular high school. It’s not a stretch to extend that type of awarding of scholarship dollars to acknowledge institutional policies.

The current tying of test scores to scholarships simply rewards those who invest in test preparation. This is a result of making an investment of thousands of dollars in test prep pay off by getting several more thousands of dollars in discounts from a college.

This exacerbates the wealth inequalities in this country and goes against the notion of education as a public good.”

 

Are These Decisions for a Moment, or a Movement?

Jennifer Jessie, also known as Jenn the Tutor, works with students on SAT/ACT and Subject Tests, and is a licensed attorney.

She says letting students apply without scores is a slippery slope:

“The impediment of test-blind and test-optional is that if a college/university does it now they no longer have cover. 

What I mean is, if you go test-optional/blind now, then you are making a stake in the test-optional and -blind movement you can’t remove.

They know letting students apply without scores is a slippery slope.  How can they maintain scores when they were able to construct a class without one?  

We see this as a decision for a moment, they see it for what it is–a movement.

They know individuals like me will say in the future, ‘How can you say you can’t do test-optional when you did it during COVID?’

Admissions deans aren’t making a decision in the current moment, they are making a decision with the future in mind and how to combat equity advocates WITHOUT losing ground.

That is why you see so many test-optional statements discuss the value of the test.”

The Myth of Scores Unlocking Doors

“It is a myth to say a certain score unlocks doors. Perfect scorers of mine have been rejected from Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, etc.

A better score increases the likelihood, but doesn’t ‘guarantee’ anything. 

We also don’t know if the colleges will take certain scores seriously this year.

Here is the truth:  You could drive out of your way, risk your student’s life, and get them a good score, and then some student with a better GPA or a more compelling application who did not do that may get the acceptance.

You could do everything, and your student could get less aid or merit, regardless. There are no guarantees, so don’t risk your student’s life.

The focus should be on how to stand out in the application/with activities, and a ‘good’ score won’t have as much weight in the current climate.”  

What to Tell Your Student

“Reassure them that they will be okay no matter where they go–but that you can no longer justify risking their health for this admissions endeavor.

Tell them that you do not believe the current climate, where students have to take a test in a mask, would produce the best score–and BELIEVE IT.

No kid is going to do their best work under a mask for four hours while worried about getting a virus–I assure you. 

Tell them that they have a better shot building out their applications and finding ways to stand out.

Tell them that even if you don’t get into your dream school, it will work out. And if it does not, you will be more than happy to help them transfer after the first year. 

Remind them that they are not trapped going to a school they hate, and if they cannot stomach the score, then maybe you will consider a gap year to have more time, if that is financially feasible.”

Learn From History

“Under no circumstance should a parent have their student risk their health for a test. Please remember that in June 2018, the SAT had a horrible curve, and as a result, a ‘rescore SAT’ petition was launched.

You could risk your students’ health, drive hours, have them sit in a mask for hours and still do well–but the test might have a ‘bad’ curve, and they won’t get the score they need. 

Your student might not do well for some reason–they’re stressed, or they don’t do well after months of studying, or possible burnout.

Then they’ll feel worse about applying to college, not better.”

Instead of Testing, Try Changing Your List 

“Modify the list of colleges you’re applying to–adjust to only include those that don’t require testing–and comfort your student over the ones they’ve lost.

And if your student cannot stand NOT applying, then apply and see what happens.

I’ve had many students accepted to colleges I didn’t think they had a shot at but by some miracle they got in.”

 

Debunking a Common Admissions Myth

Adrienne Amador Oddi, Dean of Admissions at Trinity College, says that first and foremost, we all need to come together to debunk the myth that there are fewer spaces in college than there are students who are seeking them:

“There may be limited spaces at a few colleges, but the reality is that most colleges admit most of the students who apply.

Reminding students (and family members) that there are many options should alleviate some of the pressure.

There is no perfect choice, and we should be empowering students to see the opportunity in considering several options.” 

Control What You Can

“My advice to families stuck in the confusion is to prioritize their health, safety, and well-being.

There are plenty of schools, Trinity College among them, who are truly test-optional and will not penalize students who do not have testing in any way when reviewing applications for admission and for scholarships and financial aid.

We are all experiencing the combined effects of systemic racism and the rapidly spreading coronavirus, and there are so many things beyond our control.

Opting out of testing is something students and families can control to preserve their physical health and mental well-being. Students should opt out confidently, knowing that there will be excellent college options in their futures.”

Look for Schools That Reassure You 

“Colleges that are truly test-optional should be regularly assuring students that scores are not needed as part of the review process.

Nearly 70% of students enrolling at Trinity this year are enrolling without standardized tests, so students are getting the message that this hoop is one they can bypass.”

How Admissions Officers Think

“To a student observing the admissions process, it can seem like a decision without a test score would be lacking a major variable.

From an ‘at the committee table’ admissions perspective, there are dozens of variables we are considering as we make an admissions decision, including but not limited to: (1) courses students take, compared to what is offered by their schools;

(2) evaluations from those courses, whether they are grades, written narratives, pass/fail, etc.; (3) the difficulty level of the course; (4) their ability to persist through challenges;

(5) their willingness to engage with people who have different points of views; (6) their engagement outside of school, whether it’s family responsibilities, working a job, playing a sport, practicing an instrument, volunteering, etc. 

“We can be better at sharing with students the factors that go into an admissions decision, so that it becomes clear that testing’s influence in an admissions decision is minor at best.”  

 

Please Don’t Test: You Don’t Need an SAT or an ACT to Attend This School

In a recent blogpost, Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, wrote a message for students struggling with the decision to test:

“Last night news broke that two students in Edmond, Oklahoma, had tested positive for Coronavirus after taking an ACT.  It doesn’t mean they contracted the virus there.

It doesn’t even mean they necessarily exposed other students who took the test, although both are possible.

It demonstrates that you can and should limit your social contact whenever you can, and that means not sitting in a testing center for a whole afternoon.

Don’t take risks you don’t need to.

OSU, like almost all universities, has stated publicly that we are test-optional. Some institutions are test-optional for Fall 2021 only, and some for two years; all the public universities in the state of Oregon are permanently test-optional.

And you have to believe those of us who work with students–those who have worked with students for over 35 years, like me–when we say ‘test-optional means test-optional.’

Like Lee Coffin at Dartmouth, who said it as well as it’s been said: Optional is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle.

This is not a moment for euphemisms or gimmicks; there should be no parsing of intent with this amended testing policy.

It is a clear response to an unprecedented moment that requires admission officers to reimagine some of the elements we have historically required as we reassure anxious students about their upcoming applications.

Worries about oversubscribed test sites, anxiety regarding limited registration access and the incongruity of test prep during a quarantine can be set aside.

If you have tests and you want to submit them, feel free to do so. If you don’t have tests, don’t decide you need to take the SAT or ACT on our account.

It’s not worth it to you, and it’s not worth it to us.

I’ve written for over a decade about how unimportant these tests are, and they’ve become even more trivial now, when students literally have to risk their lives to take them.”

I Can’t Speak for Admissions People at Other Institutions, But…

“If you get even a hint that they’re encouraging you to take a test to make them feel better about admitting you, ask yourself what that says about them, and what that might say about how they’ll treat you in the future.”

 

What About National Merit?

Adam Ingersoll, Co-founder at Compass Education Group, said during a recent webinar that nobody knows yet about what National Merit will be doing as it relates to test scores and qualifying for National Merit:

“They have been silent on what they are going to do. I think something has to give. It’s a pretty safe bet that the upcoming PSAT is not going to be broadly available for the normal two-plus million students who take it as 11th graders. 

Whether National Merit will try to carry on and have some more flexible qualification process, maybe, who knows?

I wouldn’t be surprised if, given what we’re facing and perhaps economic challenges, some of their corporate sponsors will just hit pause for a year, and there will be no National Merit Scholars for the class of 2022.

Anything is possible during a pandemic. We just don’t know yet.” 

 

College Apps Vary Widely on Questions Regarding Submitting Scores

Nancy Griesemer, College Counselor and Founder of College Explorations, says that as of August 1 of this year, she’s reviewed around 800 college applications and their requirements/questions.

They vary widely in how they’ve addressed (and in some cases not addressed) the topic of test-optional: 

“We need to look for ways to reimagine applications and requirements. Right now it’s up to each school to figure out the rules. There is no one governing body.

I didn’t know when I started this process how convoluted and difficult it would be. Some schools did their due diligence and added questions (about whether a student would be submitting scores) and some didn’t.

Some were reassuring in their language and some weren’t. Unfortunately, it’s up to the students to figure out what some of the language on the application means–if there are subliminal messages in how the questions are framed.”

Save Your Graded Papers

“I always tell my students to save their graded papers just in case. Some schools are now asking for them as one way to substitute for the SAT/ACT. A graded paper is rich in information.

It tells an admissions officer about the grading system at that school, and about the student–the decision they made about which paper to submit says a lot.

But does it replace scores? No, I don’t think so.”

The Bottom Line

“Yes, ACT and SAT have added additional test dates. But students should not have to be put into a defensive position for not saying yes to testing.

These kids are under enormous stress and if they are ill or lost a loved one to COVID-19 they are reluctant to go into a building to be tested.

It’s the language contained on the application and the way it’s asked that tells students about how much they can trust the school to do the right thing.” 

 

In the end, it’s up to you and your family to decide whether or not to take the tests. Consider the advice and insight of these experts and use your best judgment and instincts.

Whatever you decide, remember–you’re doing the best you can, and most schools are trying to do the best they can, and will take into consideration the fact that it’s not business as usual for applying students.

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Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary, an agency that represents book authors. She's written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Next Avenue, NBC’s Today.com and many other publications. Her memoir/self-help book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life was published by Sourcebooks in 2016.
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