by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling
When I began in admissions at Haverford College in 2002, most colleges required the ACT and SAT. Many schools also required three SAT Subject Tests (to learn about these tests, visit our Resources Page, accessible from Veracross). I never imagined that large numbers of students would someday apply to college without any of these exams.
For years, the number of schools with test-optional policies (meaning students can opt out of submitting any standardized tests) grew, reaching 1,000+ pre-COVID. These were mostly liberal arts colleges, except for George Washington University, University of Chicago, Wake Forest University, and a few others.
But within a month last spring, COVID changed the standardized testing landscape. Across the country, most sittings for the ACT and SAT were cancelled. In Seattle and other regions with high infection rates, cancellations continued into this school year, too. Realizing that requiring testing would exclude countless qualified applicants, almost every U.S. college implemented test-optional policies for the class of 2021, and it’s likely they’ll extend these policies. Some are even “test-blind” (meaning they won’t consider testing at all), including the schools in the University of California system.
This fall, there was rampant speculation among Lakeside students and parents about the meaning of “test-optional.” One student told me they thought it was a trick — that colleges would assume an applicant had a low score if they didn’t submit testing. Another suggested it was a test of the student’s resilience and determination: flying to Timbuktu to test would convince a college they’re a serious student. A third student told me they believed colleges still give preference to applicants with scores, but that colleges became “test-optional” to avoid discouraging applicants while keeping their application numbers high.
None of these are true. I understand why test-optional is mind-boggling to many; standardized testing has been an integral part of the college process for almost a century. But COVID altered the world almost overnight, and this is one of the many rapid changes we must grasp and accept. Below, I share background and data about standardized testing that I hope will help students and families believe that “test optional” truly means optional.
- Many colleges had been considering becoming test-optional long before last spring because of widespread research showing that standardized testing is a low predictor of academic success in college. While it publicly appeared that many colleges were forced to adopt test-optional policies overnight without any preparation, many schools, including Northwestern, Tufts, and Seattle University were already headed in this direction. COVID merely expedited their implementation of test-optional policies.
- In this year’s early application round, colleges are reporting large numbers of students applying without testing. In Northeastern’s Early Action pool, that figure is 50%; at Boston College, 60%; and at Boston University, 75 %. At Yale, it’s almost 40% and at Washington University in St. Louis, it’s 46%. Giving preferential treatment to test submitters would mean disadvantaging, for many colleges, half or more of their applicants. Despite the high selectivity of many schools, all are committed to equity and fairness, two key principles of our national association’s code of ethics. For example, at Tufts, 57% applied without testing. Of the admitted early pool, 56% didn’t submit scores.
- Most U.S. colleges have been practicing “test-optional” on a smaller scale for years. There aren’t any U.S. colleges that require Advanced Placement (AP) exam results for admission, yet some students submit them anyway, usually if they have scores of 4 or 5. Many others apply to college without any AP exam results. Colleges have repeatedly stated that there is not a correlation between AP score submitters and admission (we see this in our own Lakeside data). As our Brown representative told me in September, colleges know how to consider scores for some students and not others while giving both applicants equal consideration.
- Many admissions officers were never proponents of testing, and excitedly welcomed the change to test-optional. At most colleges, testing requirements are established at levels far above the admissions office, often as high-up as the president or board of trustees, who often don’t understand the ineffectiveness of standardized testing and how it disadvantages students of color and low-income applicants. (The best predictor of test results is socioeconomic class and the second is race.) I’ve spoken with many admissions officers who are excited to advocate for top students who simply don’t test well, something they couldn’t do in prior years.
- When most of my admissions colleagues say they’re test optional, I believe them because of Lakeside’s longstanding relationships with colleges. In most years, Lakeside counselors travel the globe visiting 30-50 campuses and attending conferences to learn about the intricacies of colleges’ processes. J.T. Duck, dean of admissions at Tufts, trained me as a young admissions officer and remains one of my closest friends. Lee Coffin, vice president and dean of admissions at Dartmouth, has been a close friend and colleague since 2005, when I was brand new to secondary college counseling. When J.T. and Lee tell me that “test-optional” truly means optional, I believe them, without hesitation. My college counseling colleagues have similar relationships, through which they’re also hearing the same message
While the testing landscape remains in flux — which colleges will become permanently test-optional and which will return to requiring testing isn’t clear yet — it’s evident that testing’s role in most students’ college processes will be diminished.
As students and families prepare for the college process, it’s important that they adjust their starting point. While the first question used to be, “Which tests do I take?” it’s now, “Should I take any tests at all?”
That’s a silver lining to this pandemic that we should all appreciate.
Ari Worthman is Lakeside’s director of college counseling. Reach him at email@example.com.