Much Ado About Test Optional
Pop quiz, hotshot:
1. Which of these schools will current juniors be able to apply to without submitting ACT or SAT scores?
A) Boston University
C) Chapman University
D) Tufts University
E) All of the Above.
In this blog post, I will cover:
What does test optional mean?
Which universities are test optional? (with a link to all test optional universities!)
Will test optional schools still accept my SAT or ACT?
What are the rationale and studies behind the test optional shift (even pre-COVID-19)?
Why should I still take the SAT or ACT when universities are going test optional? - Four reasons explained.
How do I know whether or not I should submit my SAT or ACT score to a test optional university?
The number of test-optional colleges and universities in the United States increases each year, and the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the college admissions process have motivated several more schools to waive testing requirements for Fall 2021 applicants.
Are you sure about this? Show me the receipts...
The most high profile of these decisions came on April 1st (but it’s real, we promise!) when the University of California system announced it will be suspending the SAT/ACT testing requirement for students applying as freshmen for the Fall 2021 term. The news undoubtedly raised eyebrows among many aspiring UC students and their families, but the nine UC campuses were not alone in choosing to make the standardized tests optional for 2021 applicants.
Boston University, Northeastern University, Case Western Reserve University, and Texas Christian University are among ten additional schools that will be test-optional for just the Fall 2021 application cycle as a temporary response to COVID-19. Santa Clara University will not require SAT or ACT scores for a two year trial period, while Tufts University and Davidson College will introduce a three year trial period in Fall 2021.
In addition, some schools that were considering a change to their admissions policy before the public health crisis have moved up their timeline, such as Seattle University. With the University of Oregon announcing recently that test scores will be not be required for admissions moving forward, every public university in the state of Oregon now offers test-optional admission permanently. These developments follow in the wake of several schools that have become permanently test-optional in the past few months: Chapman University, Indiana University, and Scripps College, among several others.
What does "test-optional" even mean?
Let’s pause for a moment, though, to consider what we’re referring to when we say “test-optional.” For many years, a significant part of the college admissions process has been the requirement that a student take either the SAT or ACT and report his or her test results when submitting an application. A college or university that is test-optional is one that does not require students to submit those test scores in order to be admitted, but will factor them into their decision they are submitted.
Will "test-optional" universities still consider my SAT/ACT score if I submit it?
I worked hard to get the test score that I have. What if I still want my colleges to see it?
It’s important to note that this does not mean test-optional schools will completely ignore SAT or ACT scores for students who do choose to submit them. Only “test blind” schools like Hampshire College and Northern Illinois do not consider test scores for any students in admissions decisions, but there are very few test blind colleges. Rather, it means that the 1,100+ colleges and universities that are test-optional basically offer two different tracks to admit students. One admissions track factors SAT/ACT scores into the holistic review process while the other focuses on all the same aspects of holistic review (grades, rigor of coursework, commitment and leadership through extracurricular activities, personal statement and supplemental essays, letters of recommendation, and more) - but without considering the test scores.
Now, it makes sense that colleges would be willing to overlook test scores for the incoming 2021 class, since multiple spring 2020 test dates have been canceled.
But why have so many colleges and universities been going test optional even before the COVID-19 pandemic?
First, a growing body of research suggests that ACT and SAT scores may not be the most accurate predictors of how well a student will perform in college. In 2014, researchers William Hiss and Valerie Franks published a study of 33 test optional institutions over a three year period. Hiss and Franks analyzed GPAs and graduation rates for a wide range of students, some who submitted test scores with their applications, and others who did not. One of their most interesting findings was that there was no significant difference between the college GPAs and graduation rates of students who applied with ACT/SAT scores and those who elected not to submit test scores. In other words, the students who scored lower on their tests and didn’t want to submit them when applying to colleges ended up doing roughly as well in their college courses as students with higher test scores.
Although high vs. low test scores did not appear to be a strong predictor of college success, Hiss and Franks noticed that students with higher GPAs in high school tended to perform well in college, while students with lower high school GPAs earned lower grades in college and graduated less frequently. This research suggests that if colleges and universities want to increase the cumulative GPAs and graduation rates of their students, they should put more emphasis on high school GPA than ACT/SAT scores.
Another intriguing and highly relevant finding of the study was that students who did not submit test scores with their applications were more likely to be first generation college students, women, from ethnic minority backgrounds, economically disadvantaged, and/or students with learning differences. These details provide support for the idea that colleges and universities can create more inclusive, diverse classes of incoming students by making the test requirement optional, a common argument put forth by test optional advocates like The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Subsequent studies, such as a follow-up report by Hiss, Franks, and Steven Syverson in 2018, have confirmed these initial findings. Most recently, researchers at the University of Chicago published a study in January 2020 that examined the college graduation rates of 55,084 students who graduated from Chicago public high schools; these researchers found that the higher a student’s high school GPA, the more likely he or she was to graduate from college, while relatively higher test scores did not consistently predict the same success.
These independent studies have given wings to the test optional advocacy movement in the past decade, leading individual schools to conduct their own internal research. Chapman University and the University of Redlands both cite analyses of their own student data as the primary factor in choosing to go permanently test optional. When evaluating the success of their own students, both schools found that ACT/SAT scores were not consistently predictive, pointing instead to… you guessed it: high school GPAs.
In short, what both independent researchers and internal studies have discovered is that standardized test scores are a flawed measure of college readiness. Test optional advocates point to family income as the figure that most closely correlates to success on the ACT and SAT; this makes sense when considering that students who participate in test preparation programs tend to score higher on these tests, and paid test prep classes and tutors are often not accessible to students from lower income households. Furthermore, high school GPA factors in four years of varied coursework while standardized test performance hinges on the outcome of a single three-hour testing session. With these factors in mind, it’s not surprising that many colleges and universities are reconsidering the value of the testing requirement in their admissions decisions.
Back to that pop quiz. Here’s a true or false question:
True or False: Since so many colleges and universities are not requiring test scores for Fall 2021 admissions, I won’t lose out at all by skipping the ACT or SAT.
4 reasons why you should still take the SAT or ACT - even with the test optional trend:
If you can attain a competitive score on the SAT or ACT, this will help boost your application! Especially students with GPAs lower that what they believe they are capable of can showcase their academic skills and commitment by preparing well and successfully taking the SAT or ACT. This is your opportunity to balance out your GPA and add yet another morsel of goodness to your overall application. However, if you really struggle with these standardized tests, and you believe your score on them is far below the academic prowess you are demonstrating through your GPA and rigor of coursework, then you might want to choose to apply without submitting your scores and instead pour your energy into maintaining high academics and preparing a solid application.
The majority of schools still require applicants to take either the ACT or SAT and report scores. Although these schools universally value high school GPA and rigor of coursework as the most important factors in their evaluations, they do take ACT/SAT scores into consideration when developing a full student profile. What about ignoring these schools that require test scores in your college search? When it comes to list-building, using test optional schools as one of your narrowing criteria is a pretty good strategy for students who don’t like tests, but it shouldn’t be the only factor you consider.
Higher test scores aren’t only a factor in admissions decisions, but also in financial aid awards. While there are some test optional merit scholarships offered, the vast majority of merit scholarships still factor in ACT/SAT scores. Putting in extra work to raise your test score can directly lead to more free money to pay for college, which takes on even greater value during times of economic recession.
Preparing for the ACT or SAT can actually help you to develop academic skills you will use beyond the test date. While these tests are certainly flawed as measures of college readiness, they do assess certain skills that are helpful in both higher education and the professional world. Our test prep tutors at Strive to Learn focus on helping students to learn the time management, organization, and critical thinking skills that will make them more confident, capable students and more well-rounded adults.
Finally, I want to address a practical question that students who apply to any test optional schools will have to consider:
Should I submit my ACT or SAT scores with my application?
Each student’s situation is unique, but my general advice would be to look up the specific college or university’s average ACT or SAT scores for the previous year’s incoming class. This information can usually be found on the school’s official website (hint: use the search function), but resources like College Data or the College Board’s Big Future will also have accurate figures. If your ACT or SAT score is at or above the average score (or the mid 50% range) for that school, it’s a good idea to submit that with your application. If your score is below the school’s average, but your GPA, course rigor, activities list, and application essays are positive factors, feel free to skip sending your test score. On the other hand, if your test score is not too far below the school’s average and you still have time for another ACT or SAT date before the application deadline, it might be worth it to study and try raising your score a few points. Those few extra points could increase both your chances of being admitted and your ability to earn university and private merit scholarships.
Maybe Shakespeare summed it up best: "To test or not to test, that is the question."
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