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.
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.
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