Reports of the SAT’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Many parents and students — misled by “test-optional” rhetoric emanating from undergraduate admissions offices — are considering whether to skip standardized testing entirely. What started as a way to adapt to the emergence of the coronavirus in 2020 and give students more flexibility has now taken off. But we should ask ourselves, at what cost?
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s recent decision to reinstate its testing mandate serves as a reminder that the tests are important. For most students, it would be a serious mistake to opt out of taking them. In reality, whether mandatory or not, the SAT and ACT continue to play an indispensable role in college admissions.
Admissions departments use “test-optional” as a marketing tool, promoting their own interests as they pretend to serve the needs of students and parents.
While several colleges announced that students would qualify for merit-based scholarships without submitting test scores, the tests appear to remain particularly important in allocating the aid.
One of my students earned a 33 on her ACT and secured a full-ride scholarship to a top-40 national research university. After speaking with other students who had secured similar scholarships, she learned that every single one of them had submitted test scores. Despite the university’s official test-optional policy, the students who had submitted scores received the lion’s share of the funding. Another one of my students applied to a large test-optional state school with an ACT score of 22 and was offered a scholarship of $24,000. After raising that score to 25 and sending his chosen college the new results, his aid package was increased to $36,000.
Both of these examples are from within the past year, and they represent the consistent trend for my roster of students at every score level. Make no mistake: Test scores are still a key consideration behind the scenes as admissions officers mull over aid packages. As a result, skipping the test is often not in a student’s best interest.
Most college admissions departments, therefore, are not truly test-optional at all. As long as any preference or advantage can be gleaned by submitting test scores, students who opt not to do so are at a disadvantage. For these students to be competitive, they would need to have an equal chance of being admitted and receiving scholarships regardless of whether they test. That is simply not true of college admissions today, nor will it be the case this or next fall. Stressed and overscheduled families should resist the temptation to skip the test unless they are comfortable with the risk of forfeiting opportunities.
One of the major hurdles to succeeding on these tests is test anxiety. Many of my students have ADHD, dyslexia or other learning disabilities and have internalized the notion that they are “bad test-takers.” This difficulty can be heightened when students come from marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds. Athletes, in particular, often have to hit certain test score thresholds to attend their dream schools and play for those schools’ teams. So do the SAT and ACT simply constitute a kind of hazing ritual for these students — a painful and outdated rite of passage that should be discarded?
On the contrary, standardized tests have real-world utility, measuring students’ ability to use the information in front of them to solve problems quickly. This kind of problem-solving depends on emotional self-management. Students learn to be flexible rather than rigid, giving priority to the questions they can get done in the time provided. They learn how to break down complex problems into discrete, manageable pieces. They also develop resilience by pursuing a course of test preparation, and persevering through frustration. As for the specific material involved, the days of “SAT words” and arcane analogies are long past. Today, the tests emphasize reading comprehension, English grammar and real-world math such as statistics — practical skills that people use daily.
What if colleges really were test-optional? The utopian hypothesis is that college admissions would become more inclusive and accessible if the SAT and ACT played no role. In reality, any well-intentioned move to kill the tests would deepen inequity. The elimination of standardized testing benefits one group of students above all others — those who receive “legacy” admission. Furthermore, the test-optional experiment has failed to increase racial and ethnic diversity at universities. A 2021 study of nearly 100 private colleges that adopted the policy found that it resulted in only about a one percentage point change in the racial and ethnic makeup of admitted students. Thus, despite colleges’ soaring rhetoric around inclusivity and access, evidence shows that test-optional policies have almost no impact on reaching those goals.
Admissions departments use “test-optional” as a marketing tool, promoting their own interests as they pretend to serve the needs of students and parents. By not including testing mandates, they open the floodgates to large numbers of applicants, many of whom have no real chance of being admitted. Colleges appear much more selective on paper. The test-optional hype has caused the number of applicants at elite colleges to soar even as the number of slots for admitted students remains the same. Therefore, the percentage of applicants admitted diminishes, reducing the acceptance rate. A lower acceptance rate is interpreted as greater selectivity, which can boost a college’s position in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of colleges. It is a laughable charade: The quality of the school’s education remains the same, but it enjoys the prestige of a higher ranking. Colleges and universities can then enjoy short-term benefits from the test-optional trend even as they cause long-term harm to the entire admissions process.
If we truly care about setting students up for success, the answer is not to remove standardized testing. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a tutor. When test scores are omitted from applications, colleges are forced to rely on GPA as the sole quantitative metric for students’ academic achievement. Students whose applications include scores provide admissions officers with a more comprehensive picture of their abilities and accomplishments. Finally, in the realm of personal growth, test-takers also benefit from overcoming anxiety and mastering skills they never thought they could.