Colleges shift toward test-optional statuses: a win for “student choice”

Ashley Cline, Co-Editor-in-Chief

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the education system into a frenzy, and college entrance exams were no exception. With mass test site cancellations last spring and a long period in which schools were closed entirely, a large majority of U.S. colleges and universities decided to go “test-optional” for the Class of 2021. Some extended the period to the Class of 2022 and even 2023, and others decided to remain test-optional indefinitely. 

“Test optional colleges are not a new thing– they have been around for a long time,” College Counselor Andrea Rusk said. “A great example is Bowdoin College who has been test optional since 1969. They have been considered highly selective throughout their history and have been admitting highly successful students without test scores for the whole time.”

This test-optional policy– which was introduced out of necessity at most institutions this year– has sparked debate regarding the value of college entrance exams, as whole classes of students were accepted to college without sending SAT or ACT scores. The spike in test-optional statuses in colleges and universities across the country is a step in the right direction, especially in a time when individuality and uniqueness are more highly valued than a test score. 

Aside from relieving pressure from stressed students and opening further opportunities to those who didn’t receive the score for which they had hoped, test-optional statuses have made colleges more equitable, stated Drew Small, a regional admission counselor for Bowling Green State University.

“Accessibility is huge,” Small said. “For me, this is the most important factor to keep ‘test optional’ post-pandemic. Many students do not have the luxury of obtaining an ‘SAT tutor’ or take classes to help improve their score. Also, the one test that is administered in the school might be their only option to take the test score before applying to colleges. Allowing a test-optional path creates a level playing field. It allows us as [an] admissions office to use [a student’s] full academic history as a measurement tool versus [the student’s] score on a test that [the student] took one Saturday in the fall of [that student’s] senior year.”

Moreover, the option to not submit test scores has proven valuable to those with test anxiety as well as students who simply don’t perform their best under the conditions of a standardized test.

Some individuals really struggle taking standardized tests, and no matter how much help they seek, they continue to not perform to the best of their ability,” Small said. “Test optional policies help students that experience test anxiety by allowing them to show their aptitude and preparedness for college in other ways.”

Standardized tests have also been the subject of discussion regarding whether or not they are an accurate measure of a student’s college preparedness, especially considering the restrictive timeframe given to students.

“I think they are a good snapshot in time of what the student knows at that particular time and under those testing conditions,” the Department Chair of Guidance Tom Buenik said. “I’m not a fan of the strict timing of the exams, and they should allow more time for students to process and work through the exam.”

Small said that the tests provide some insight on a student’s college readiness, given it is analyzed in conjunction with the many other documents that must be submitted in an application.

“The ACT and SAT can provide an insight on how prepared a student is for college. Saying that, I do not think it is the sole predictor for success in college,” Small said. “The test score is used in conjunction with other admission documents to help ‘paint a picture’ of an applicant. Using the test score with the transcript can help me assess how a student is performing on a year-by-year basis but can also show me how proficient they are in certain areas. The reason that schools ask for several different documents for admission is we need to be able to piece information together and make the best decision for the student and the institution.”

In the past, the value placed on these scores by parents, students and many schools themselves has been far too great, given the limited subject matter the tests cover. By increasing the normality of test-optional admissions, there will be a shift away from the mentality that students’ test scores define them in the eyes of an admissions officer. 

I believe that this past year has made schools reevaluate how they review applications and how to use different metrics to determine if a student is admissible,” Small said. “As an institution, it is our job to review applications and admit students that are academically prepared for college. This is something that we have been discussing at our institution. Historically, we have always required a test score for admission, but this past year we have really seen the value of reviewing students’ applications without the test score and putting more emphasis on the application and other documents submitted during the admission process.”

This is having a positive impact on many students. The emphasis on colleges using a more holistic approach to admissions is also giving students the confidence to apply to schools they would otherwise consider to be out of their reach. 

“I believe strongly in student choice. I think that the increased number of schools that are test-optional has opened a door for students who fit the profile in every way: strong academic profile (GPA), involvement, leadership, community service, who perhaps did not have test scores that they believed matched their other components to now believe in themselves more strongly,” Rusk said. 

In the end, the beauty of test-optional policies is that it advocates for the choice of students. Those who feel test-taking is a strength can use these tests in their application to show that, and those who don’t feel it’s a positive addition can omit them and set their focus elsewhere in their application. It allows students the flexibility to portray themselves to higher educational institutions in a way in which they can truly feel proud.