Colleges Should Permanently Adopt Test-Optional Policies

by Sally Jamrog

Opinion

May 28, 2022

Since the spring of 2020, the number of colleges and universities in the United States that have adopted test-optional policies has rapidly increased, “nearly doubl[ing] (from 713-1350) as of February 2022.”1 While many of these policies, which allow applicants to choose whether to submit SAT or ACT scores, were designed to be temporary and were initially implemented to mitigate student exposure to COVID-19 at standardized testing sites, record admission booms and more diverse applicant pools resulting from these policies have caused many colleges to reconsider their longstanding standardized testing traditions.

As of today, more than 1,400 higher education institutions have already extended test-optional policies for rising seniors applying for 2023 college admission.2 Boston University (BU), for example, after experiencing a 24% increase in applications in 2021, has extended its newly-adopted test-optional policy for the third consecutive year, stating that this shift has made BU’s admissions system more comprehensive.3 “While the admissions process at Boston University has always been holistic and decisions have never been based solely on one single factor, such as an SAT or ACT score,” an article in BU Today reports, “the move to test-optional over the past two years has improved our process by adding considerable weight to the important qualities and characteristics that focus more on you and your academic and personal accomplishments.”4 In addition to BU, many of the nation’s more selective colleges have announced test-optional policies moving forward, such as Harvard University, which has extended this choice through to the incoming class of 2026 in order to research the effect of the shift on the Harvard student body. The University of California is a more extreme example, having recently announced a permanent test-optional policy for all ten schools in its system.5

Despite this test-optional trend, certain institutions hesitate to break away from the near hundred-year tradition of using standardized testing in the college admissions process. Some colleges value the inclusion of SAT or ACT scores in an application as a means to create a more streamlined and standard metric with which to evaluate the academic aptitude of an ever- increasing number of applicants. For instance, in an interview with CNN, Dean of Admissions for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Stu Schmill argued that standardized test scores are particularly useful to MIT in determining student fluency with mathematics. “There is no path through MIT that does not rest on a rigorous foundation in mathematics,” Schmill says, “and we need to be sure students are ready for that as soon as they arrive.”6

Regardless of the possible merits of these tests, the problems with requiring SAT and ACT scores lie in that they are not necessarily effective at predicting academic performance and can be too easily gamed by members of higher socioeconomic strata. It appears that the SAT and ACT do not actually contribute unique information. According to a presentation by Bates College at the 2004 National Association of College Admissions Counselors, “graduation rates between [standardized test score] submitters and non-submitters [at Bates College] varied by only 0.1%, and average Bates GPAs varied by only 0.05%. In addition, non-submitters had slightly higher graduation rates.”7 Besides lacking predictive power, these tests also fail to control for external factors. Tanay Nambiar ‘22 comments, “Standardized testing like the SAT or ACT will never portray an objective truth about a student’s ability. With so many variables affecting students differently, it would not be fair to compare test scores.” Moreover, for many colleges, grasping who a student is as an individual is equally as important as understanding their academic prowess in determining whether an applicant is a good fit for their institutions. Requiring standardized test scores during the college admissions process runs the risk of excluding or deterring lower-scoring applicants who could thrive in a certain college community.

Furthermore, more financially-privileged test-takers can also have an unfair advantage in being  able to afford professional tutoring through private test-prep companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan Test Prep, which can cost thousands of dollars.8 Popular one-on-one, personalized sessions with a practiced tutor can cost even more, with prices ranging from $40 to $800 per hour or more. These kinds of opportunities create starkly unfair advantages for wealthier test-takers compared to those who cannot afford a preparation plan or even spend time preparing for the SAT or ACT. Oftentimes, more affluent students can afford to take these tests multiple times (registration for the SAT and ACT costs around $60 without a fee waiver, which only covers two attempts), which has been proven to increase scores on average. Because financial status and race are often closely tied, the SAT and ACT have also been found to discriminate against minorities, putting Black and Hispanic Americans at a disadvantage. According to data collected by the College Board from the test results of the class of 2020, “Over half (59%) of white and four-fifths of Asian test-takers met the college readiness math benchmark, compared to less than a quarter of Black students and under a third of Hispanic or Latino students.”9

As colleges place more value on viewing applicants holistically, they should implement permanent test-optional or test-flexible policies to even the playing fields for low-income applicants and more effectively evaluate students’ academic abilities, giving more weight to personal essays, GPA, recommendations, and other components of the application. Additionally, colleges could supplement the application process by adding opportunities for students to prove themselves in a variety of more applicant-customized ways. For instance, Vassar College allocates space in their application for students to submit anything of additional academic or creative value that might contribute to their profile: a blank page for them to utilize as they see fit. Tanay also mentions that Brown University has recently implemented a video portfolio submission opportunity for its application in place of an optional interview. Like the Vassar application’s blank page component, creating this two-minute video portfolio is another way for applicants to present themselves in their own unique light, a short introduction including the applicant’s name and high school being one of the only content requirements for the video.10

These additional methods to more comprehensively evaluate applicants should, however, be coupled with a mindfulness of the time and work applicants will need to put into these applications, as more application components could add more stress to the college process for applicants. However, while removing the straightforward rubric of a standardized test score may lengthen the evaluation process, expanding applications to allow for more student self-expression would be a more equitable and ultimately more effective solution to determine a student’s readiness for a particular college. As Katie Kara’a ‘22 says, “Lots of colleges talk about their ‘holistic review process,’ and I think that removing the standardized testing portion of it makes it more holistic and allows [colleges] to focus more on the applicant as a person than as a test score.” Though certain colleges may have data-driven reasons for requiring standardized test scores, as in the case of MIT, extending test-optional application policies for years to come is a significant step forward in making the college admission process as equally centered on applicant authenticity as it is on numeric evaluations.


1 Darrel Lovell and Daniel Madison, “How Test-Optional College Admissions Expanded During the Covid-19 Pandemic: An Essay For the Learning Curve,” Urban Institute, February 2022, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/how-test-optional-college-admissions-expanded-during-the-covid-19-pandemic_0.pdf.

2 “1,835+ Accredited, 4-Year Colleges & Universities with ACT/SAT Optional Testing Policies for Fall 2022 Admissions,” Fair Test, April 20, 2022, https://www.fairtest.org/university/optional.

3 Rich Barlow, “BU Is Making Standardized Tests Optional for Undergrad Applicants for Third Consecutive Year,” BU Today, January 20, 2022, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2022/standardized-tests-optional-for-third-consecutive-year/.

4 See 3.

5 Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, “University of California Will No Longer Consider SAT and ACT Scores,” The New York Times, May 15, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/15/us/SAT-scores-uc-university-of-california.html.

6 Eric Levenson, “MIT will once again require applicants to take the SAT or ACT, bucking the anti-test movement,” CNN, March 29, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/29/us/mit-sat-act-standardized-tests/index.html.

7 “A Brief History of the Test-Optional Movement in Higher Education,” DePaul University, March 18, 2011,
https://offices.depaul.edu/enrollment-management/test-optional/Documents/HistoryOfTOinHigherEd_EMatters3-18-11.pdf.

8 Ann Carns, “Another College Expense: Preparing for the SAT and ACT,” The New York Times, October 28, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/29/your-money/another-college-expense-preparing-for-the-sat-and-act-.html.

9 Ember Smith and Richard V. Reeves, “SAT math scores mirror and maintain racial inequity,” Brookings, December 1, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/12/01/sat-math-scores-mirror-and-maintain-racial-inequity/.

10 “Video Introduction/Alumni Interview,” Brown University, https://admission.brown.edu/first-year/video-introduction-alumni-interview.