Credit: CollegeSpring
CollegeSpring students at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland.

As pressure mounts on the University of California to drop its SAT requirement, it’s clear that test-optional admissions are having a moment. But are they all they promise to be?

More than a thousand colleges and universities are now “test-optional,” meaning that they do not require the SAT or ACT for admission, and the number is growing.

Yoon Choi

Test-optional policies stem from a critique of the tests as discriminatory against African-American, Latinx and low-income students.

The test, critics say, does little more than reinforce the ways American society is shaped by race and class. White and Asian-American students score significantly higher on the SAT than other racial groups. The single most predictable indicator of your score is your parents’ level of income — the higher, the better.

But the test itself, while certainly imperfect, is not the root cause of the problem. Rather, it is simply the most visible, measurable symptom of the systemic inequity that pervades college admissions and our entire K-12 education system.

The waters around test-optional policies are muddier than they appear at first glance. In the recent wave of news stories about test-optional admissions, these policies are often presented as an easy fix to a lack of racial and class diversity in college admissions.

They are also discussed as if “test-optional” is an agreed-upon term that means the same thing everywhere. But in fact, there are several different kinds of test-optional policies implemented across American higher education.

Out of the 1,050 schools who claim to be test-optional, fewer than 1 percent are “test-blind,” meaning that they do not use SAT or ACT scores in admissions decisions. Almost all “test-optional” schools actually fall into two other major categories.

In the first are the 43 percent of test-optional schools who have an “academic threshold.” These schools require applicants to submit test scores if they fail to meet certain other criteria, like high school class rank or GPA.

The California State University system, serving almost half a million students annually, falls into this category. However, their Eligibility Index contains incredibly explicit requirements for applicants’ SAT scores: While the test is technically optional, it is required for all students with GPAs lower than 3.00. For every hundredth of a point one’s GPA falls below 3.00, the SAT score required for admission rises incrementally.

The second major category, encompassing 39 percent of all schools with test-optional policies, is “test-optional for all.” At these schools, every student decides whether to submit an SAT or ACT score on their own individual, case-by-case basis. The most famous of these is the University of Chicago, which went test-optional to great fanfare in 2018.

Even at these schools, taking the SAT still gives students an edge in admissions. For example, a closer look at the University of Chicago’s admissions website reveals the following advice: “We encourage students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential.”

In other words, you don’t have to take the SAT, but you probably should.

Despite the current trend, the data are inconclusive about how effective test-optional admissions really are. Schools with test-optional policies do see modest increases in the number of students from historically underrepresented groups who apply and are admitted.

However, the question remains: what do students lose out on if they don’t submit their scores? For one thing, submitting an SAT score still increases one’s chance of being admitted.

It may also help with financial aid. Students who skip the test are, on average, more financially needy. At the same time, they also receive less generous financial aid.

The picture that emerges most clearly from the test-optional movement is how small a departure from the status quo it really is. Vanishingly few colleges and universities have completely done away with standardized tests.

This fact makes it all the more important to properly diagnose the reason for the gap in test scores. Only then can we solve the problem properly. And to do that, we have to focus on the gap in test preparation, not just scores.

Students who have access to formal test preparation are often the same students who have access to other things that make them appealing college candidates, such as well-funded public schools, AP classes and extracurricular activities.

Going test-optional makes us feel like we’ve removed a barrier to college access, but it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics that brought about the test gap in the first place.

While the SAT itself isn’t inherently unequal, the lack of equitable access to test prep is. We need to provide all students with test preparation so that the SAT becomes an opportunity to get into college, not a barrier keeping students from it.

Their popularity and publicity notwithstanding, test-optional policies aren’t a quick fix for what’s wrong with our college admissions system.

•••

Yoon Choi is CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that trains schools and teachers to provide SAT prep to students from low-income backgrounds.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

We need your help ...

Unlike many news outlets, EdSource does not secure its content behind a paywall. We believe that informing the largest possible audience about what is working in education — and what isn't — is far more important.

Once a year, however, we ask our readers to contribute as generously as they can so that we can do justice to reporting on a topic as vast and complex as California's education system — from early education to postsecondary success.

Thanks to support from several philanthropic foundations, EdSource is participating in NewsMatch. As a result, your tax-deductible gift to EdSource will be worth three times as much to us — and allow us to do more hard hitting, high-impact reporting that makes a difference. Don’t wait. Please make a contribution now.

Share Article

Comments (11)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Wayne Hui 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    SAT is biased. If students study, they will get high SAT scores. It favors students that study, so it is not fair because many students cannot afford to study. After the admission standards are lower, the colleges will have to lower graduation standards because students are not graduating. I have met cashiers that will be totally confused if I give that some extra changes so that I can get the whole quarter back. I had … Read More

    SAT is biased. If students study, they will get high SAT scores. It favors students that study, so it is not fair because many students cannot afford to study.

    After the admission standards are lower, the colleges will have to lower graduation standards because students are not graduating.

    I have met cashiers that will be totally confused if I give that some extra changes so that I can get the whole quarter back. I had met ski patrol supervisor that could not read the ski safety rule.

    Some day every one will have a college degrees but on one can read and do maths. The computers will do it for all of us

  2. Mary Ellen 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    High school GPA depends on which high school a student attends. Grades are subjective; test results are not.
    It’s a myth that a student whose scores are high took expensive prep courses. The library has SAT test prep books; most high schools offer free test prep classes on the weekend. What evidence is there to suggest that paying for a test prep course leads to a substantially higher score?

  3. ELLEN WHEELER 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Another crucial component to this discussion is that high school GPA is a good predictor of success in college, whereas getting a high score on the SAT/ACT has very little correlation to success in college. Thank you to EdSource for attending the PACE conference on this topic and for posting articles about this subject.

    Replies

    • Mary Ellen 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Ellen Wheeler, I am skeptical about your assertion that high school GPA correlates to college success, but SAT/ACT scores do not. Is this your opinion, or can you cite specific studies?

      • ELLEN WHEELER 1 week ago1 week ago

        Hi Mary Ellen - My assertion is based on reading Paul Tough's latest book "The Years That Matter Most - How College Makes or Breaks Us." I short-handed my original comment. SAT/ACT scores can help predict 1st semester college success. Whereas high school GPA correlates to college success. And yes, at the PACE conference the panelists noted that "a 3.5 GPA is not the same at every school." But, the GPA is a good … Read More

        Hi Mary Ellen – My assertion is based on reading Paul Tough’s latest book “The Years That Matter Most – How College Makes or Breaks Us.” I short-handed my original comment. SAT/ACT scores can help predict 1st semester college success. Whereas high school GPA correlates to college success. And yes, at the PACE conference the panelists noted that “a 3.5 GPA is not the same at every school.” But, the GPA is a good proxy. Thanks for asking. And, I strongly recommend Paul Tough’s book.

        • Bo Loney 1 week ago1 week ago

          Are we thinking one author can have the absolute answers to every question in the world? Because that would be some amazing insight.

  4. Cathie 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    My daughter recently took both the SAT AND ACT tests. The only test prep she did was free and online. She scored in the 99th percentile for both. I suspect the people that want to do away with these tests also know about these free test prep sites. This is just part of their agenda.

  5. el 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    For what it's worth, I really like the way the test-optional plan is implemented for CSU. Students who are ready for college "can" control their GPA to stay above 3.0. For students who have had issues in high school, a good score on the SAT is a way to recover. And for students who can't do either in the time allotted, the community college system is another way to do coursework successfully and gain admission … Read More

    For what it’s worth, I really like the way the test-optional plan is implemented for CSU. Students who are ready for college “can” control their GPA to stay above 3.0. For students who have had issues in high school, a good score on the SAT is a way to recover. And for students who can’t do either in the time allotted, the community college system is another way to do coursework successfully and gain admission to either CSU or UC even if they cannot muster a strong showing on the very artificial challenge of the SAT.

    College admissions are weird and challenging as long as there are more students who want a slot than slots. The best answer is to make sure there are high quality slots available to every student who can benefit. Making the situation less of a winner-take-all that depends on how strong you were on one test on one day is beneficial to every student in California. The stress that high school students are under can be immensely unhealthy.

    People like tests because they have simple numeric answers to explain why this student was admitted and this one wasn’t. That it is simple is not the same as equitable or optimal. Without the tests, the competitive universities have to find new criteria to sift and sort applicants into the admit vs don’t admit pile and this is challenging too, especially given the deep inequality of opportunity among schools. Admitting kids because they took more AP classes or more interesting electives leaves behind students who don’t even have those choices.

    I would like to see more advanced online college-level courses made available to any high school student who wishes it, ideally with local support from teachers to help students get through the challenges this brings. There is no reason any student in California should be excluded from access to high level, challenging coursework, and this could be a much better admission differentiator than the SAT.

  6. Bo Loney 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I feel the narrative that is being pushed over and over saying that students only do well on the SAT because of income is a generalization and dismissive that academically gifted students actually do exist. There are students who do not do any test prep and score very high. Sometimes even in elementary school before any high school curriculum is even presented to them. It's these kids who by high school (or before) … Read More

    I feel the narrative that is being pushed over and over saying that students only do well on the SAT because of income is a generalization and dismissive that academically gifted students actually do exist. There are students who do not do any test prep and score very high. Sometimes even in elementary school before any high school curriculum is even presented to them. It’s these kids who by high school (or before) if not properly challenged have a higher risk of dropping out and never reaching their potential. It’s these student’s talents that are at risk of continuing to fall through the cracks with this proposal. It’s our STEM disciplines that will diminish without them.

    Replies

    • Dan Plonsey 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      You've perhaps misread the article. 1) No one is saying that kids "only do well" because of parents' income. Income is identified as the variable with the highest correlation to test scores. 2) Your point seems to be that GATE (or similar) programs are necessary to keep gifted students from dropping out. That's not being discussed here. What's being discussed is a statistical issue which is: how might a college best identify students who are … Read More

      You’ve perhaps misread the article. 1) No one is saying that kids “only do well” because of parents’ income. Income is identified as the variable with the highest correlation to test scores. 2) Your point seems to be that GATE (or similar) programs are necessary to keep gifted students from dropping out. That’s not being discussed here. What’s being discussed is a statistical issue which is: how might a college best identify students who are likely to succeed given that SAT is a biased measurement, as it overestimates the abilities of wealthier applicants, and whether simply making the SAT optional does much to reduce the advantages that wealthy kids have in representing themselves as more qualified.

      I agree with the author’s skepticism, and would argue further that better access to SAT test preparation is merely one small part of that very large problem!

      • Bo Loney 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        I understand that people want to stick to that narrative that it is all about income. However, I am not convinced that income is the main cause of high test scores. Not extremely high test scores in particular. I mean you would really have to do an extremely in depth study per pupil to say definitely income is the main factor for test scores and rule out all other variables. Causation vs correlation. … Read More

        I understand that people want to stick to that narrative that it is all about income. However, I am not convinced that income is the main cause of high test scores. Not extremely high test scores in particular. I mean you would really have to do an extremely in depth study per pupil to say definitely income is the main factor for test scores and rule out all other variables. Causation vs correlation. And anyone who has been around gifted students knows there is a clear difference in speed. Look at the UCR student who commented under one of the previous articles this week about what he is experiencing around CS majors.

        Gate no longer exists as far as I know. Gifted children are the last thought of, if at all and it seems people are willfully ignorant to the challenges and struggles this creates for these children daily. It’s a shame to waste that type of talent or deny that they exist at all.