For decades, the common perception among parents, teens, and many high school counselors has been that one number — an SAT or ACT score — defines a student and their college chances. The higher the score, the better the student, the better the college.
The pandemic, though, may be a game changer for test score requirements in college admissions. The SAT’s spring tests have been canceled. The ACT was canceled this spring, though its summer dates are still in play, for now.
This year’s high school juniors, who will apply to colleges between late fall and January, may not have test scores to offer, let alone transcripts with grades for every semester. The College Board, which administers the SAT, estimates that 1 million first-time SAT takers could not take the exam this spring. An ACT spokesman said the company does not release similar data.
Since March, roughly 60 colleges have gone test-optional for the fall 2021 admissions cycle, partly to reduce stress for high schoolers during these already anxiety-ridden times. Some are doing a three-year pilot of making SAT and ACT scores optional for applying. Could these colleges’ experiments lead to sweeping change, change that could reverse years of inequity and access issues?
College entrance exams have long been rapped for exacerbating the disparities in America’s education system based on income and race, and because of the opportunity for cheating, highlighted by last year’s Varsity Blues admissions scandal. Wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebrities, were accused of paying for stand-ins to take their children’s tests, lying about a learning disability to get more testing time, and paying off a proctor to change incorrect answers to correct ones.
The colleges going test-optional because of the pandemic so far are a small but varied group, including one Ivy League school, Cornell University. Others include Tufts University; Boston University; Northeastern University; Middlebury College; and the University of California system, according to a list maintained by FairTest, a Boston-area organization. FairTest has long worked to end the misuse of and bias in standardized testing. Since the pandemic, a national student activist group, called Student Voice, has joined the rallying cry with petitions, emails to colleges, and a #TestOptionalNow hashtag on Twitter.
“I think this entire pandemic has [given us] the opportunity to rethink higher education admission practices,” said Joseph “JT” Duck, dean of admissions at Tufts, which is doing a three-year test-optional pilot.
The new test-optional colleges join more than 1,100 that already don’t require standardized test scores for entrance, accounting for nearly half of the nation’s roughly 2,400 four-year colleges. The trend, part of an overall lean toward more holistic admissions, has picked up in recent years, though the first college to go test-optional was Bowdoin College in 1969. History has shown that once a college goes test-optional, it sticks with the practice. In 2014 and 2018, studies led by William C. Hiss, a former Bates College dean of admissions, showed that colleges met their goal of broadening access when they stopped requiring test scores. Students who don’t submit test scores are more likely to be first-generation college students, students of color, women, and Pell Grant recipients, whose families typically make $50,000 a year or less. Those same students, typically between 10 percent and a third of applicants, perform in college about the same as students who submitted test scores.
Admissions officers acknowledge longstanding equity issues with standardized tests. Students from wealthier families have advantages, including the ability to hire private test prep tutors. The most recent publicly available College Board data on family income and SAT scores shows that with each additional $20,000 in family income, a student’s average test score rises. Students whose families made $20,000 or less scored roughly 400 points below those from families making $200,000 or more. Score gaps by race also are large, with whites and Asians outscoring Black and Latino students by as many as 277 points.
College admissions officers at test-optional schools say they will look at scores of students who choose to include them as a part of an individual profile, but students without scores will not be at a disadvantage. Grades and the rigor of their coursework serve as the quantitative measures of these students.
Boston University’s research during the last decade showed that a student’s high school GPA, factored in with course rigor, was the most important predictor of first-year performance in college, says Kelly A. Walter, dean of admissions at BU, which will go test-optional for a year. “By not having a test score, this gives us an incredible opportunity to redefine what achievement means,” Walter says.
“Admissions offices do not need standardized test scores to make sound admissions decisions,” adds Andrew Palumbo, dean of admissions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which went test-optional in 2007. “There have been 1,000-plus schools that have adopted test-optional policies. The sky did not fall.”
Mark Dykes, a guidance counselor at Snowden International School, a public high school in Boston, is skeptical, however, given most students submit test scores even at test-optional schools. He believes colleges will consider students who submit scores more favorably because those teens will submit stellar test results, while students who think their scores are too low will choose to hold them back. Hence, many of his students, who are predominantly Black and Latino and almost all from low-income households, will still be at a disadvantage.
“Till I see it, I won’t believe it,” Dykes says.
Dartmouth College isn’t planning to go test-optional as of yet, but its admissions dean, Lee Coffin, says his school, like many colleges, study a student’s test scores in context, including accounting for barriers such as family income and considering the average score at an applicant’s high school. Students with a score lower than Dartmouth’s SAT average — 1501 for its most recent class — shouldn’t take themselves out of the running. Dartmouth also accepted students with scores in the 1100s because they excelled in other ways that showed they had what it took to succeed at the college, Coffin noted.
Students should view test-optional applications as giving them a choice on how they present themselves to a college, and many respond creatively with business proposals, artwork, and other ideas, says Peter Wilson, the deputy dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, which went test-optional in fall 2019.
“It’s a signal to them that we care about them more than a number,” Wilson says. Even with the option, 90 percent of the university’s applicants last year submitted test scores, and Chicago’s average SAT score rose from 1511 to 1528 for the fall of 2019.
Why not completely eliminate test scores from the process? “My feeling is, as of right now, it’s not the best way,” Wilson says. “For some students, their best selves may be they are good testers, and we want them to be able to show that to us.”
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert.