December 4, 2020

How test-optional pilots could fundamentally improve college admissions

Gracie Meisner '21, Staff Writer

For decades, standardized testing has played a vital role in the entrance to higher education, serving as an indicator of college readiness and a prediction of future academic success. Even with increasing evidence of the correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores, the SAT and ACT continued their hold as a required component of the application to most colleges. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, all bets are now off. Our temporary reality could fundamentally and permanently change a long-standing part of the college admissions process — and for the better. 

Due to the cancellation of the March, May, and June SAT, the College Board estimates that one million first-time SAT takers could not take tests this spring. The ACT, which doesn’t report similar data, canceled their spring test, though summer dates still stand, at least for now. 

With testing opportunities in jeopardy, over sixty colleges and universities have since March announced test-optional policies for those entering in the fall of 2021, a change enacted to diminish student anxiety around the test requirement amidst the disruptions of COVID-19. Some institutions, including Tufts University, Davidson College, and Haverford College, are moving into a three-year test-optional pilot system, which will be re-evaluated at the end of the pilot period. The newly test-optional schools join more than 1,100 colleges and universities that already don’t require standardized testing as a part of the application, the front-runners of an increasingly popular movement for more holistic admissions.

“I think this entire pandemic has [given us] the opportunity to rethink higher education admission practices,” said Joseph Duck, dean of admissions at Tufts, to Boston Globe. As he said to the Tufts community, “We periodically revisit our admissions requirements to determine whether they continue to support our efforts to identify the very best and most compelling students for Tufts University. 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.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have enacted test-optional policies that could fundamentally change college admissions for years to come. Photo courtesy of Grade Power Learning. 

Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College, which has been test-optional since 2015, sees the current pandemic situation as a catalyst for thinking ahead to the future. 

“COVID-19 is going to force us to think differently about our work. Every aspect of higher education will be disrupted,” said Pérez to Forbes Magazine. “I believe we should never let a crisis go to waste. While we are taking care of immediate needs, we should also be asking our — what are the opportunities for the long term?” 

It’s no question that there is bias in the college application process. Extra-curriculars and grade point averages (GPA), two markers of academic achievement and future success, exist in a format that cannot be ranked or reduced to a number on a scale. In order to combat grade inflation and provide a measurable system by which to evaluate students, the SAT and ACT claim to even out the playing field and give colleges a common data point that can be used to compare all applicants’ academic aptitudes.

Even while seeking to provide a way to fairly assess and give students an equal chance at admission, standardized testing fails to take into account the implications of external factors on students, which are necessary in understanding the context and circumstance of each applicant. To compare a student from an under-funded rural public school and a student from an elite prep school means to understand that the opportunities these two students had were likely very different.

According to the most recent College Board data on family income and SAT scores, students from families making below $20,000 annually scored roughly 400 points lower than students from families making above $200,000 annually. In other words, the SAT is a better indicator of family income than academic aptitude. Race also plays a role, with white and Asian students outscoring black and Latino students by up to 277 points. Students from wealthy families who can access test prep tutors and independent education consultants consistently outperform poorer students who do not have access to the same resources or opportunities, which is why transcripts, essays, recommendations, and resumes are increasingly pivotal in understanding how students perform within their own contextual environments. 

“The weak predictive validity of most tests, the increasingly obvious lack of equitable access (and preparation) should have every college questioning whether requiring admissions tests is worth the cost,” said Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy and advancement at Fairtest, an organization that addresses issues related to fairness and accuracy in test taking and scoring to Forbes Magazine. “We as a nation will have to ask ourselves how we view our role as a society. Is the role of society to support those in need? Is education a public good or a positional good?”

Research done by Boston University throughout the last decade showed that a student’s high school GPA, factored in with the course rigor, was the most important predictor in first-year performance in college. Perhaps this was the case because GPA exemplified work ethic and tenacity, providing admissions officers an insight into the development of the student throughout high school. According to Kelly A. Walter, dean of admissions at BU, the institution’s test-optional policy for the class of 2021 will allow for the shift in what defines a successful student. 

“By not having a test score, this gives us an incredible opportunity to redefine what achievement means,” said Kelly to Boston Globe

While some students worry about what test-optional institutions will think if they opt not to submit standardized testing, college admissions officers say they will consider the scores of students who choose to submit them, and students without scores will not be at a disadvantage. 

If temporary test-optional policies become permanent, students can be sure that the holistic approach, which places emphasis on the whole person and not merely empirical data such as grades and test scores, would become increasingly utilized in the admissions process. This would fundamentally change the definition of what a successful student looks like and allow applicants to portray themselves through their experiences, without the numerical constraint of test scores. 

The strengths and weaknesses that make up a student cannot be determined by a test score, and neither can their academic potential. If these temporary test-optional policies become permanent, higher education would become more accessible and less biased, and would allow for a greater increase in diversity. This would represent a fundamental change for the better.

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