The Courier’s Guest Columnist Adam Stone has helped students navigate the world of undergraduate and graduate admissions testing as a test prep and academic tutor for more than 20 years. A graduate of Stanford University, Stone has also helped develop materials for prep companies and worked with school districts to bridge the gap between academics and measurement. Stone can be reached at www.adamstonetutoring.com.
As we emerge from the most restrictive aspects of a pandemic world, parents and students alike are cheering a return to normalcy in education. It seems, however, that not everything may be returning. When SAT and ACT testing sites were shut down by COVID-19 in March 2020, a class of applicants found themselves largely unable to provide test scores. Colleges were forced to accept a temporary paradigm shift in numbers-based admissions policies and drop the testing requirement. While the testing centers have since returned, it seems that testing requirements may not, a complicated decision sure to be met by mixed reactions.
Many parents are confused about the role standardized testing should play in their child’s college admission process. That is understandable. Standardized testing has long been controversial as a tool for admission. I’ve always considered it a bit of a necessary evil, an attempt to make sense of an educational system that lacks cohesion. While universities in the United Kingdom can rely on GCSEs to evaluate students according to a national curriculum, our network of 50 different state educational systems and 35,000 private schools means tremendous disparity in curriculum and opportunity. Compulsory education without national standards means we are committed to educating everyone, but we don’t educate everyone the same way. It makes for an incredibly challenging task of comparing students from different areas and experiences, leaving admissions officers to lean on the SAT and ACT.
Both exams attempt to correct the problem, creating scoring curves that allow schools to evaluate students according to a uniform standard, but they have faced accusations that the standard isn’t a fair one. Anti-testing advocates contend that standardized tests tend to produce lower scores for students of color and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Testing advocates counter that those results are caused by differences in educational opportunities, not the tests themselves, and the disparity is not limited to testing alone. A study by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, for example, found that application essays are even more prone to income-based influence. Students with the advantage of help find ample room to use it throughout the process. In fact, it can be argued that a proctored room is actually the one place that a student cannot receive immediate assistance.
When factors of race and socioeconomic status are taken into account, test scores can provide a valuable and uniform tool, but many admissions offices exacerbated problems by using it as a sort of low tide mark. Scores below a certain level automatically disqualified many students, even some with circumstances that merited further consideration. Race conscious admissions at schools like Harvard helped to address these problems even before schools went test-optional, raising admissions numbers for minority students and creating a more diverse campus population. Still, the removal of testing requirements changed the perception of what was possible, and the resulting application numbers were astounding.
In the first application cycle of broad test-optional policies, numbers soared. Test-optional Harvard saw its applicants increase from 40,248 to 57,435, a 43% change. Stanford rose from 47,498 to 55,471. And while application numbers to the newly test-blind UC system actually fell slightly in 2020, they’ve rebounded with an increase of more than 30,000 new applicants to 203,842 this past fall. Without testing, the application process feels open to students who wouldn’t have felt qualified in years past. The other side of that coin, of course, is that admissions rates have naturally plummeted. Incoming class sizes remain the same and occupy a smaller proportion of the applicant pool. It’s become even more impossible to get into impossible schools. As many schools have committed to remaining test optional for the time being, those daunting numbers could be here to stay. And yet, this can actually be good news for both test takers and non-test takers alike. I’ve had a number of parents ask me a simple question over the last two years: should my child test? The answer is, unfortunately, more complicated: it depends.
Students will still need to strongly consider taking the SAT and ACT, as these exams now confer an even more important benefit. Schools are understandably reticent to release official data on the difference in admissions percentages for test takers and non-test takers. After all, they maintain that a student won’t be harmed by declining to submit test scores. Privately, however, they tell a different tale, with a distinct advantage being conferred upon test takers. At a prominent southern university, submitting test scores left students twice as likely to be admitted. This has been the case for many schools that went test optional years ago, and it’s now playing out across a broader stage. According to Wes Hill of college counseling firm Wise World Prep, it’s significantly harder to get into highly selective without test scores now that test optional policies have expanded application numbers. I had a number of students in the class of 2021 who were fortunate enough to complete their testing in the fall of their junior year, and I watched those students benefit in the admissions process when their classmates found themselves unable to submit scores. This benefit is unlikely to change, and for stronger test takers, the irony is that the removal of testing requirements just might provide an even bigger boost.
To Test or Not to Test
Why, then, don’t I recommend testing for all? It comes down to time and value. While it’s true that testing provides a huge benefit for many students, it has always hurt others. The removal of that low tide mark is tremendous news for the types of students who previously banged their heads against the wall in the pursuit of marginal score improvements. If the SAT and ACT are no longer required, those students can quite simply find better ways to spend their time, ways that benefit their prospects without causing headaches and stress. While testing certainly conveyed benefits to certain students this past year, plenty of students were able to impress admissions officers and gain entry to the class of 2025 without them. If a student is unlikely to see a score that aids their academic profile, they should turn to other pursuits.
So, how do students and parents make that decision? Thankfully, the SAT and ACT help with the process with free testing materials. Students can take a diagnostic test, look at their results and their desired schools, and work with their parents or counselor to decide whether study and preparation are a worthwhile investment. That’s a choice many students didn’t have in the past, and hopefully one that will continue well into the future. While the elimination of testing requirements has certainly made life more difficult for admissions officers, it’s allowed greater opportunities for students to reflect their best selves on applications, and that’s a change we can all get behind.