Understanding Standardized Tests for College Admission

student stress, by cottonbro from PexelsStandardized tests have come to define US education, persisting from elementary school all the way through entrance into graduate school programs. They continue, despite evidence that these tests are flawed, and biased against students of color, English-language learners, low-income students, students with disabilities, and those who struggle with test anxiety. In the case of college admission, standardized tests have been used as indicators of how successful students will be for the academic environment of that college or university, despite evidence that high school GPA is a better predictor. 

During the spring months of 2020 when everything shut down due to COVID, so did testing.  Testing sites have either remained closed or been cancelled all summer, leaving rising high school seniors without the ability to take the SAT or ACT. The fall isn’t going to be any different. In anticipation of this, colleges and universities have been moving to test-optional for this year’s application cycle. As of August 13, 2020, FairTest – The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reported that three-fifths of all 4-year colleges and universities had moved to test-optional.

But what does test-optional really mean? Should students still try to take standardized tests? And what will happen with standardized tests once COVID goes away?

What does test-optional really mean?

Test-optional isn’t new; colleges and universities have slowly been moving to admitting students without standardized test scores. In practice, this means that students can choose whether or not to submit test scores to be considered as part of their college application. Typically, for test-optional schools, when no scores are submitted, admission officers are looking at other pieces of a student’s application. This includes their high school transcript, the rigor of the courses taken, student activities, demonstrated curiosity, and more. For these students, the college application essays tend to be even more important.

Test scores aren’t used just for admission purposes, however. Many schools use scores to determine merit awards. Schools that have gone test-optional, then, may not use the scores for admission purposes, but they might for awarding institutional scholarships. In other words, if a student doesn’t submit SAT or ACT scores, this may not impact their admission to the college or university, but it could negatively impact their prospect at receiving merit awards to attend that college.

Should students still try to take standardized tests?

The really important part of this for students and families to understand is that every college uses “test-optional” in different ways. It’s critical that as students consider a college, they speak with the admission office about how test scores, or absence of scores, is considered as part of the application review process and the merit award review process. Right now, colleges are modifying their practices, so we’re all having to double check how things are being handled.

With so many schools going test-optional, should students still pursue taking standardized tests? In general, the answer is yes. There’s so much change in what colleges are doing, I would much rather a student have the scores in case they choose a college that requires them for admission and/or merit awards.  

But taking them right now is easier said than done. Because of past cancellations, there are a lot of students backlogged trying to get into the tests. And test sites are closing because of public health considerations. So while I encourage students to pursue taking a test, I recommend it with a very healthy reminder that the test is not the most important part to getting into college or determining their future success.

Colleges and universities know it’s an extremely difficult thing to pursue right now, which is why so many have gone test-optional. So, for high school juniors and seniors, focus on doing well in your courses, and continue to challenge yourself. Find ways to explore your curiosity, and demonstrate the ability to engage in your personal and academic learning despite the challenges around you. This is what colleges will look for instead of, and beyond, test scores. It’s also what will help you be successful in college and life.

What will happen with standardized tests once COVID goes away?

There’s definitely a feeling that we’re shifting away from standardized testing in college admission, at least as a core requirement. There are advocacy and research groups leveraging their voice to work toward ensuring a more equitable and fair college admission process. The professional association I am a member of, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, recently called for all colleges and universities that have gone test-optional this year, to make it permanent and applicable to both admission and merit award decisions. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University has called on colleges to go further and purposefully admit fewer legacy students, while admitting more low-income students, students of color, and students who’ve worked hard to pursue their college dreams, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

If you take away just one thing, let it be this. College admission is an ever-evolving thing, and every college does things a little differently than another. Give yourself ample time to explore college options, career interests, and what will be a good fit for both the student and family. Talk with the admission officers at each school of interest to fully understand what they consider in the admission decision process and the merit award process. Gathering information and using your time wisely will help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety of the college journey. 


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