Part I: The facts
We have been thinking about the rapid adoption of test-optional policies by college admissions offices this spring due to the cancellation of SAT and ACT tests. We are concerned that the decision to make testing “optional,” rather than simply eliminating testing as a part of the admissions process this year, is adding to students’ stress and anxiety and may place students’ health at risk.
In this first of three articles addressing the current test-optional policies, we define terms and provide background on the issues that led us to where we are today. In the second article, we describe specific problems that we see with pandemic-inspired test-optional policies and argue that the most appropriate way to handle testing this year in admissions is to adopt a test-blind policy. In the third and final article of this series, we offer our thoughts on how students and their families may want to consider these issues in order to plan for the fall admissions cycle.
- Test Optional means that after a student takes a test (SAT or ACT) and sees their test scores, they have the option not to report their scores if they believe that their scores don’t accurately reflect their academic ability and potential.
- Test Blind means that colleges neither accept test scores nor include them as part of the application.
When and why students are advised to take these tests
Normally, students take the test (SAT, ACT or both) for the first time in the spring of junior year and then have the option to repeat it late spring or fall of senior year. Because many colleges superscore the SAT and in some cases the ACT, meaning that they evaluate the highest section scores across multiple tests, students can benefit from taking the tests more than once. Test scores are still required elements of a freshman application for most colleges during normal years, and they are often used to determine merit-based aid and eligibility for athletic recruitment. So, they play a role in many aspects of the college admissions process.
How testing has gone so far this year and what may happen in the fall
While some students prepped early and took the SAT or ACT before the pandemic-related cancellations occurred in the spring, most did not. More recently, students were able to take the ACT during its administration on June 13, and nine more test dates are scheduled through the end of 2020. The SAT was last administered in December 2019, and five test dates are scheduled through the end of 2020. Going forward, state and local governments and even high schools themselves, which host the tests, may block test administration in the interest of school and community safety. For example, while the June 13 ACT was nationwide, not all test centers were open, not all states had test centers, and some tests were cancelled due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the local area. The upshot is that students in some communities will be able to take (or retake) the tests, while students in other communities will not.
How test-optional policies have rolled out
Before COVID-19, many colleges assembled committees that spent months or years studying the potential benefits to the applicant and to the college of implementing test-optional policies. In general, test-optional policies benefit students who, for example, have test anxiety or lack the ability to pay for test-prep resources that can result in higher scores. For those students, greater weight is placed on other components of the application, which can include grades, courses, essays, activities lists, honors and awards, letters of recommendation, interviews, and demonstrated interest in the college. For colleges, test-optional policies are believed to stimulate a larger, more diverse applicant pool, resulting in lower admission rates and a more diverse student body. The policies have the added benefit of increasing colleges’ average admitted-student test scores potentially leading to higher rankings, since only students with high scores will submit them. The example that many colleges look toward when deciding whether to go test optional is Bowdoin College, which embraced its policy more than 50 years ago and continues to attract highly qualified, intellectually curious students. Bowdoin’s admissions website states:
“Since 1969, we've been selecting the right applicants for Bowdoin, using only the materials that we require of you: your transcripts, your writing, and how your teachers talk about you.
“This policy allows applicants to decide for themselves whether or not their SAT or ACT results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential. For candidates electing to submit them, test scores will be reviewed along with other indicators of academic ability.”
During COVID-19, most colleges that were not previously test optional adopted test-optional policies by necessity. In fact, just this spring, nearly 200 colleges and universities implemented test-optional policies, with more than half stating that their policies apply only to the Class of 2021. Most of the very highly selective colleges, such as those in the Ivy League, fall into that category. In fact, some colleges seemed to accept those policies very reluctantly, including Stanford University and Princeton University, which only just announced their new, one-year test-optional policies during the past week, long after most other colleges. MIT (link) and the University System of Georgia (link) are the two of the remaining holdouts that still require SAT or ACT scores for all applicants. Ultimately, more than 1,000 colleges and universities had implemented policies that de-emphasized test scores by the time the general public became aware of COVID-19.
The rushed approach to adopting test-optional policies means that these colleges may not have had time to develop the core principles that will guide their admissions practices. How these colleges will implement their policies in a fair way remains to be seen, since students who are able to take the test, and therefore may get a boost in the admissions process, may have unequal access to other opportunities and educational enrichment than students who are unable to take the tests.
In the next article in this three-part series, we describe four specific concerns that we have about colleges’ current COVID-19 test-optional policies and challenge colleges to re-think this approach in favor of adopting a test-blind policy.