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What to Make of the Test-Optional Movement

What to Make of the Test-Optional Movement (2022 edition)

One of the biggest question marks in college admissions has become, “What does ‘test-optional’ really mean?” And the answer, like many things in the higher education landscape, seems to be rapidly evolving as we get further from the pandemic-linked rush towards test-optional pilot programs. In this blog, I’ll reflect on where we’ve been, think about what we know for the future, and suggest some ways for you to see your own testing timeline in the right context.

Where We’ve Been

Test-optional admissions have been around for over fifty years, since Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts college in Maine, began offering students the option to choose whether their test scores should be included in their application. A wide variety of schools shifted towards that model over the following years, but typically those colleges with low admissions rates stayed away from this trend. Right before the pandemic hit, the University of Chicago became the first top-tier school to make submission of the SAT or ACT optional for applicants. At the time, this was considered a potential bellwether of things to come.

However, higher ed professionals could never have anticipated the acceleration of test-optional movement brought about by the pandemic, when COVID-19-related closures of schools and other testing sites forced the hands of admissions offices across the country. With most testing opportunities unavailable for months, admissions offices were left with little choice but to open test-optional pathways for college applicants from the high school class of 2021. This galvanized a slow-building movement of colleges to recognize that it is possible to build a freshman class without standardized test data.

Many colleges report that about half of their applicants for the Fall of 2022 submitted test scores. The Common App data indicates that over 40% of students had a test score to submit (compared with previous years where upwards of 70% of students submitted test scores). We have a bit of distance from those results now, so we can make some observations about how it played out. Keep in mind though, we are looking at very high-level data, so we can only observe correlations, not causes.

Admissions results from colleges across the country suggest that each school managed this shift in access to testing according to their own process and priorities. Georgetown University, for instance, has long indicated that they believe that test scores are a vital component of an accurate admissions review. Though they allowed for the option to apply in 2021 without test scores for those students who were unable to test, they reported that 90% of their accepted students in fact had submitted test scores.

More recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school known both for its wildly shrinking acceptance rate and its effort to be thoughtful and intentional in admissions, announced a return to a testing requirement in admissions for upcoming classes. You can read their explanation here. At the other end of this spectrum, some highly selective schools, such as UCLA and Pitzer College, have eliminated consideration of test scores altogether.

Many Colleges Are Staying Test-Optional

According to FairTest, more than 1400 bachelor-degree granting institutions are already committed to test-optional policies for the high school class of 2022, and its executive director predicts that this figure will approach or even possibly exceed 70%. It is reasonable to believe that this number will only grow over time and that the College Board and ACT will need to adapt to different kinds and levels of demand for their services.

Colleges Are Looking for Other Components to Measure

An admissions officer’s job is to evaluate an applicant based on a number of criteria and data. Without test scores, what has historically been a major indicator for some colleges is now — poof — gone. This vacuum can be filled by placing greater emphasis on other traditional components of the application (e.g., grades and rigor) and a new approach to non-cognitive skills.

For instance, Santa Clara University reported at the 2021 NACAC Test-Optional Forum that they could demonstrate the same or similar outcomes for admitted students based on academic rigor and GPA without test scores. Many colleges, such as Harvard University and Trinity College, account for qualities such as grit, delayed gratification, comfort in the minority of one, and others by evaluating the evidence of such traits with a metric approach, literally trying to measuring them in a standardized way.

So, as you put together your application materials, be sure to fully reflect on all the moving parts of the application process so that you convey a full sense of your experience and identity, whether you plan to include test scores or not.

You Should Probably Still Look into Standardized Testing

All this said, having standardized test score can indeed add meaningful data to a student’s application in many scenarios, even when applying to test-optional schools, which means many students will benefit in admissions if their test prep pays off. Rarely should a student assume they will move forward fully test-optional without even considering taking the SAT or ACT. Is it possible to do that? Sure. But you may be missing out on providing information to admissions offices that is still found useful and adds value to your application. Carefully consider your plan with your trusted advisers (e.g., college counselor, parents) to map out a standardized test plan that makes sense for you.

Jeff Knox contributed to an earlier version of this blog.

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