As schools closed down, SAT and ACT tests were canceled across the nation. Almost a million high school juniors and seniors were unable to take a test that nearly every single college in the U.S. requires. My own SAT in March was canceled, right as the world went into lockdown.
Some students already had test scores while many others were left stranded with no score and no upcoming test date in sight. To address the various positions of students, colleges and universities began going “test-optional.” Contrary to what many may think, test-optional is actually not a new concept. It had typically been smaller liberal-arts colleges making the switch, but two years ago, the University of Chicago announced a test-optional policy, the most selective college to do so at the time. There are currently more than 1,600 colleges that have omitted the SAT or ACT as an application requirement for the fall 2021 admissions cycle. And some have even made the change permanent. But what does “test-optional” really mean? On the surface, it means that a student can still apply to a certain institution without a standardized test score, but it’s a lot more than that. The college admissions process is already complicated, but like with many other facets of life, the pandemic has only made it more complex. Test-optional policies have created a strange middle ground that no one is sure how it will work in actuality. How can colleges fairly evaluate a student without a test score against a student with one? Unless a school is “test-blind,” it seems like a student with a test score would typically have the advantage. But being test-blind would also be unfair to those who already had a test score they wanted to submit. The college process now seems to have gone from a murky swamp to a pitch-black well.
Standardized tests have been a way for students and parents to have a concrete number to measure whether they stand a chance of getting into a certain school. Despite many top schools changing their testing policies, students still feel like they need to take these tests. Driving hours or even taking a plane to sit for an exam aren’t uncommon. But the vast majority of American students don’t have the resources to pause their lives in order to take a test. This has only furthered the need for colleges to consider how to alter their admissions system while taking into account the social and economic challenges that often severely disadvantage students. One attempt at creating a more equitable system has been to use a “holistic” approach when considering a student’s application. Rather than reducing a person into a few numbers, admissions officers consider things such as a student’s essay, interview, extracurriculars, and experiences. While this system still has its flaws, it allows students who may not have had access to test prep classes or expensive tutors to showcase their potential to admissions officers.
Standardized testing has been a staple of the high school experience, but removing this may be a step in the right direction of a new era of college admissions. But unless these exams are completely ignored, students and parents will continue to view a high test score as a way to gain an edge on others.
Graphic: Sunny Rhew