A growing number of prominent U.S. colleges and universities are making SAT and ACT testing optional for applicants. Columbia University, which like many schools made testing optional early in the pandemic, this month became the first Ivy League school to announce it would continue test-optional admissions indefinitely, encouraging students to "represent themselves fully and showcase their academic talents," with or without entrance-exam scores. William & Mary, a public university in Virginia, took the same step the next day. Eighty schools, including the University of California, don't consider test scores even if applicants submit them.
Standardized tests were long considered a fixed part of the process of applying to four-year colleges and universities. Only a few competitive schools were test-optional until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Traditional exam sites, like K-12 schools, shut down all at once, The Washington Post says, and the test-optional movement took off "at warp speed." More than 80 percent of four-year institutions are at least temporarily continuing the policy even as the pandemic fades. What does the growing test-optional push mean for students, and higher education?
Standardized tests are too valuable to throw away
The SAT's value is "self-evident," said the editors of National Review. Studies have shown that standardized testing does exactly what it's supposed to: "It identifies intellectually gifted children from all strata of society, but even more crucially allows talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds (whether economic or minority) to shine in a way their local educational opportunities (or a chaotic home life) might never have permitted." Without equalizers like this, the idea of "America as a so-called meritocracy" melts away.
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Make no mistake. Universities aren't scrapping these tests to make the admissions process more fair or "holistic." They're doing it to prepare for a likely Supreme Court ruling in two cases — Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina — that will limit affirmative-action admissions policies. When a school like Columbia distances itself from the SAT saying it wants to focus on "respecting varied backgrounds, voices, and experiences," what it means is that it wants to find a way to continue to discriminate and preserve its "ability to directly shape the racial and social" makeup of its incoming class.
The SAT and ACT are only fair in theory
The standardized test is supposed to be the "great equalizer" in college admissions, said Analise Bruno in The Daily Free Press, an independent student newspaper at Boston University. "If everyone takes the same test, then the chance to achieve the coveted 1600 or 36 should be within everyone's reach — right?" Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way, because "this alleged neutral measure of intelligence has been contaminated by implicit class and race biases."
Data from the College Board, which operates the SAT, showed that students from households with incomes under $20,000 scored lowest on the 2015 test, and those from families making more than $200,000 scored highest. Pricey, high-quality tutoring services that many families can't afford boost scores by 90 points or more. "Why should every student be defined by a single number they earn from a test that isn't holistically fair?" Every university should make the SAT and the ACT optional, so applicants can have "less restrictive" options for showcasing their abilities.
Ditching tests could add stress for students
There is a legitimate debate about whether the SAT favors "rich families, which can pay for test-prep classes for their kids," said Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. But it's fair to ask whether dropping the test will make matters worse, skewing the metrics even more in toward the wealthy with a "bundle of metrics" like "high GPAs, internships in Nicaragua, and expensive traveling soccer teams."
And the danger goes beyond fairness. Setting aside the SAT could "billow the embers of a teen-anxiety firestorm." You can "cram" for a test, but when a college says your chances hinge on "an infinitude of talents, it's a tacit suggestion that ambitious students spend 100 hours a week cultivating as many résumé-stuffers as possible." Being a teenager is stressful enough without feeling like admissions counselors are watching your every move.
Standardized tests should be free and mandatory
The SAT's critics, including The New York Times, say it's a "barrier," said Rob Henderson in The Free Press. "But it's also a gateway. Most poor kids don't take the SAT or any other standardized test. More should." In fact, standardized testing should be mandatory — and free — for all high school students.
"The chattering class is using poor kids as pawns to eliminate standardized testing, which helps their own kids — rich kids who 'don't test well.'" But the admissions process is already stacked toward the wealthy with or without testing, because they "know how to strategically boost their GPAs, get recommendation letters from important people, stack their résumés with extracurriculars, and use the right slogans in their admissions essays. They have 'polish.'" If elite colleges really want to open doors, why are they squeezing out standardized tests "before they eliminate legacy admissions. Tells you all you need to know."
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