Test-Optional Private School Admissions

One truism that we often see in education is a policy trickle-down effect. Often, something gets enacted at the higher education level, and a few years later, we start to see that policy gain momentum at the secondary school level.

The latest version of this pattern is Test-Optional Admissions.

The Washington, DC area is disproportionately populated with highly competitive private schools offering what seems like a mysteriously small number of highly coveted seats in their classes. Over the years, these schools have relied on admissions testing as a component of their application process. This development, too, followed the example of higher education. The SAT exam was developed in 1926 for use in college admissions, and the SSAT (no relation to the older exam despite the name) rolled around in 1957. By 2019, almost every single school in the area required submission of this test or another similar standardized version with an infuriating alphabet of names: ISEE, HSPT, WISC-V, OLSAT, and so on.

And then, COVID.

As was famously reported throughout the nation, many colleges eliminated standardized testing requirements for admission through the summer and fall of 2020. In part, these decisions were made based on student access to safe testing. Additionally, many schools were looking for a reason to test the waters, no pun intended, on test-optional admissions.

Many DC area private schools quickly followed suit.

And yet, the implications of “test-optional” for high school admissions, or for middle school admissions, are not quite as obvious as perhaps they may be at the college level. Colleges are typically looking at applications across thousands of high schools. They have already built-in a variety of holistic factors, and they have deep throngs of thinkers providing data analytics on how to predict student success on their campus.

Private schools are mostly just entering the world of test-optional admissions, without the omnipresent data-driven machines that colleges have behind them. So we are seeing lots of variations, some cool options, and also some conflicting instructions. And in general, confusion for families.

What are my options?

Schools have essentially four varieties of testing policies this year.

TESTING REQUIRED: School will require a standardized test (the SSAT, ISEE, and HSPT are the most common) to consider an application complete.

IN-HOUSE ASSESSMENT: School will opt to offer its own assessment and will schedule the test directly with the student.

TEST-OPTIONAL: if a student has standardized test scores, you may choose to submit them.

TEST-BLIND: School will not accept standardized test scores at all, of any kind, and do not plan to offer an in-house assessment.

So, your first step is to determine which category describes the schools on your list. For most students, you’ll likely have a mix of at least two, if not three, of these options. Most students I have counseled this year have 3-6 schools on their list. Almost inevitably, one of those schools has a test required, one of those schools is test-blind or test-optional, and a handful are providing an in-house assessment.

The latter two options provide similar practical experiences for the student. If a school will consider scores, you probably want to take a stab at testing, with at least a bit of preparation. The great news is that whatever preparation you are doing for your assigned exam will likely also help you prepare for the in-house assessments that schools are providing. Remember, private schools know the skills you need to be successful in high school, so they are simply seeking information about how to gauge your capacity with those skills. Don’t panic that the test seems mysterious. Do what you might normally do: read books, practice vocabulary, find a tutor, work on extra math problems. All of that will help you develop both the skills and the confidence you need for an in-house assessment as effectively as the HSPT or SSAT.

How do I decide?

The test-optional schools give you the most flexibility. You have the choice to determine what you want to do with any test scores you have earned.

First step: protect that option.

The SSAT and ISEE offer you the option to have scores sent directly to you or sent directly to the school. Unless you are taking the test very close to a deadline, the better option is to have the scores sent home. That way, you have time to determine your next steps. You can think about a retake, think about applying test-optional, or even think about changing course and trying a different exam if you struggled on that first one.

Second step: consider your application as a whole.

Too many times, we get caught up in abstract questions like, “What is a good SSAT score?” But really, the question you want to ask is, “What role does my SSAT score play in my overall application package?” More specifically, “Does this score make me a stronger applicant?”

The answer to that question will vary. These tests provide breakdowns of different skills and sections, for instance. Sometimes, you might submit a test report with a high reading score to balance what may be a hiccup on your 7th grade transcript in Literature class. But another student might hold back on submitting that same score report if the math score is very low and they are applying to an engineering pathway at a top high school.

Every private school in the area has a great sense of the road to success on their campus, a strong sense of mission, and a deep understanding of their own curriculum. Your job is to bring that same reflection to your test scores. What does this score show about you as a learner? What does it reflect about your potential or your hard work or your challenges? Does it feel authentic to you? With test optional admissions, you have a chance to use the test score just as you use each other piece of the application — to help the admissions team get to know you better. Trust me, that’s what they are looking for.