Photograph by Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels
Photograph by Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

Many of us can relate to the anxiety facing the latest group of high school seniors awaiting college acceptance letters, but there’s something unique to the class of 2022 — and no, it’s not navigating higher ed admissions through the ongoing pandemic. Less than half of college applicants submitted SAT or ACT scores this year.

There’s been a widespread movement among colleges toward optional testing. Fair Test, a national organization that aims to advance quality education and equal opportunities for students, teachers, and schools, keeps a running list of schools with optional testing. There are over 1,800 across the country.

“The current generation of high school, juniors, and seniors have been tested to death,” says Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of Fair Test. The average urban high school student has taken 112 standardized tests by the time they graduate, he says, so teenagers are embracing the opportunity to be judged as more than a score. 

“When a school says they’re test optional, they know that they’ll be judged on many more factors: not just academics, but community service, leadership, obstacles overcome, special interests — all the things that make them an individual rather than a three-digit number.”

Between “the data, the discriminatory impact, the success of test optional schools, and increasing the representation of demographic groups in the diversity of their admissions pool,” Schaeffer predicts schools will continue being test optional in the coming years. It means, he says, that admissions offices decided the data proves there are better ways to fairly and accurately make admissions decisions “that result in more diversity and no loss of academic quality.”

“That is relying primarily on the academic records of three-and-a-half years of high school grades and course rigor instead of three-and-a-half hours of filling in bubbles,” Schaeffer says. “That ends up making better predictive decisions and enhancing the diversity of all sorts in their school.”

Why Are Schools Getting Rid of SAT and ACT Requirements?

It’s been widely discussed that standardized testing is racist and largely benefits white students. It’s also long been known that these tests are not reliable metrics of what students know — especially considering the best way to “succeed” is having the financial means for special coaching, prep books, practice tests, and the privilege of taking it multiple times.

“Their own research shows that the SAT is a weak predictor of undergraduate success, at best,” Schaeffer says. “It’s even weaker as a predictor for applicants from historically underrepresented demographic groups, including African Americans. So it’s decided in many ways, in many cases, that it was a barrier.”

It was a barrier in both a psychological and tangible way, Schaeffer explained. Schools publicizing an average test score discourages people who scored below that from applying, even if their academic records and other characteristics mean they would be excellent students. Then, if a school really does use the test score to make admissions decisions, Black and lower-income students have lower admissions rates because they tend to have a lower average score.

Finally, after the COVID-19 pandemic upended education as we knew it, institutions of higher education decided to, even if just temporarily, make the SAT and ACT optional for applicants.

Ditching mandatory standardized testing was a common practice among HBCUs for 2022 admissions. Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, and Morgan State University are among the HBCUs that opted for optional testing. However, many HBCUs have not yet announced their decisions around optional testing for 2023 admissions.

“Whenever you have other institutions out there that are developing policies and strategies that impact African American students, we’re going to take notice,” says Angela Nixon Boyd, Dean of Admissions at Hampton University. 

The tests, she says, cause a lot of anxiety and stress for students and parents alike. “If you remove that requirement from a lot of your colleges and universities, then they may have a competitive edge with attracting students. So I think some HBCUs are taking a hard look at that, as well, when they make decisions about their test optional options.”

Is Going Test-Optional Making a Difference?

In some cases, we can already see a difference in applications where schools made testing optional.

The University of California system compared applications by race and ethnicity from 2020 to 2022, and there are already slight jumps in applications among African American and “American Indian” applicants. Similarly, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Ed also found higher rates of Black students enrolled in the nation’s top liberal arts colleges. 

“The data from schools that have gone test optional in the last decade is substantially better in terms of increases in diversity,” Schaeffer says. “There are numbers released by colleges and universities showing significant increases in minority enrollment of all sorts, and Black enrollment in particular.”

As of spring 2021, the College Board was still reporting a significant drop in the total number of people taking the SAT. There was a 31% decline in test takers from 2020 to 2021.

“The primary factor is the pandemic. In some parts of the country, it remains difficult to find vendors with open space because of the pandemic, so many test centers shut down,” Schaeffer says. “On top of that, when many admissions offices remove the test score requirements, it wasn’t worth the risk to sit in a testing center when their scores would not be required.” 

While the numbers are expected to bounce back this year, Schaeffer says the number of test takers is unlikely to reach what it was in 2020.

Another trend seen during the pandemic is soaring application numbers at HBCUs. Hampton University was part of that trend, with a 39% increase in applications. Nixon Boyd says she’s seen a slight decrease in the number of students who are opting to submit test scores.

At Hampton, the policy is that anyone with a 3.3 GPA or higher has the option to submit SAT or ACT scores with their application. But if your GPA is lower than that, your scores are required.

“Since the pandemic has turned around, I will say, with last year’s class, we probably had maybe 30% of our applicant pool to submit test scores,” Nixon Boyd says. Though it increased to roughly 50% this year, it’s still lower than the 70% of applicants who submit

Like any new practice, it will take some time to accurately characterize any changes. But we are quickly seeing a change: 90% of schools that use the Common Application are now test optional, and only 43% of applicants submitted scores in 2021, which was down from 77% the previous year. 

Social factors — like the pandemic and nation’s “racial reckoning” — created a more welcoming climate for optional testing.

Probably in the mid part of the last decade, fewer students thought test optional was real, Schaeffer says. “Now they know it is the new normal in college admissions.”

How do Students Decide Whether to Submit Scores?

It’s one thing knowing you don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores, but it can be a mental game of deciding whether you should.

Nixon Boyd says she’s a “nothing ventured, nothing gained kind of person.” When making admissions decisions, schools are going to consider each applicant’s best credentials. 

“The stronger your application package, the better for everyone involved,” Nixon Boyd says. “And I believe that, in a lot of instances, it is not hurting the students to take the standardized test.”

It’s important to check individual school policies, Nixon Boyd says, because some scholarships are tied to submitting standardized test scores.

Of course, not everyone agrees that going test-optional is beneficial to students. After MIT announced on March 28 that they’re going back to requiring SAT scores, Kathryn Paige Harden, a clinical-psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in The Atlantic that “standardized testing, inequitable as it might be, is more equitable than any other criterion.”

“Dropping any admissions requirement is necessarily a decision to weigh other factors more heavily,” Paige Harden wrote. “If other student characteristics, such as essays, recommendations, and coursework, are more strongly correlated with family income than test scores are, then dropping test scores actually tilts the playing field even more in favor of richer students.”  

Ultimately, says Fair Test’s Schaeffer, it’s up to each individual student to decide if their full portfolio — both academic and extracurricular — offers a “holistic and positive representation” of their accomplishments, and if that will be helped or harmed by the score of a single test.

“That’s one of the powers of test optional admissions: it puts that decision about whether the test score is considered in the hands of the applicant,” Schaeffer says. “It empowers kids to take the option — or not take it — rather than having an external rule required.”

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