Why colleges and universities should always be test-optional


In response to the widespread ACT and SAT cancellations since March of this year, more than two-thirds of American colleges and universities have switched to test-optional admission for the 2020-2021 admission cycle. While the switch has certainly helped a lot of graduating seniors breathe a little easier this fall, for most institutions, it’s nothing more than a temporary adjustment. As soon as it’s safe to crowd thirty or so kids in a classroom for four hours to take a mind-numbing, anxiety-inducing exam, they’ll likely require it again.


But that isn’t the way it should be. 


The purpose of standardized exams like the ACT and SAT is to measure what the College Board deems “college preparedness,” but studies suggest that things aren’t so black and white. The way they’re designed, these tests are really just a proxy for wealth and literacy, and by themselves aren’t the best predictor of how well a student will do in college. 


The average SAT score increases as family income does, as displayed in this profile report. Wealthier families have more money to spend on test prep classes and tutors, and likewise, schools in more affluent areas make test prep courses more readily available to their students. It’s fair to say that these wealthier high schools also generally have more educational resources to prepare their students for higher education, in a way inner-city schools and schools in other low-income areas do not.


Standardized tests also discriminate against students with learning disabilities and students who may speak English as a second language. High schoolers with dyslexia or similar comprehension disabilities will likely find reading and understanding test questions difficult, as will ESOL students. 


Not to mention, some questions reference specific regional idiosyncrasies that may catch students off guard. Put another way, some words within the English language have different meanings depending on geographic location (i.e., the word toboggan has come to mean hat in the American South, but is another word for sled up north). If a test question uses one of these words, students may lose precious time trying to decipher the cultural context clues.


Even if a student is able to overcome all of these difficulties, is it even worth it? After all, standardized tests more often measure how well we can regurgitate information or make an educated guess than they do human intelligence. The ACT and SAT have virtually no valid assessment of other essential skills like creativity, critical thinking or group collaboration, which are just as important–if not more important–than basic academic aptitude. Therefore, it’s impossible for something as trivial as a test score to capture the full scope of a student.


TED Education compares standardized testing to a ruler. While it’s a good tool for measuring the length of certain objects, you wouldn’t use it to measure “the temperature outside, or how loud someone’s singing.” Similarly, a ruler wouldn’t be the best choice for measuring the circumference of an orange, as it isn’t flexible enough to give an accurate description.


Arlo Kempf, an Assistant Professor of Equity Education and Teacher Development at the University of Toronto, sums it up this way: “If standardized tests are given the wrong job, or aren’t designed properly, they may end up measuring the wrong thing.”


In other words, our obsession with standardized testing is just a symptom of the greater disease that plagues the American education system. We focus on numbers, not on students, chasing exaggerated scores and high grades at the expense of students’ mental, physical and social health. It’s one of the reasons rates of anxiety and depression in American high schoolers have risen significantly over the past decade.


Thus, taking the ACT or SAT out of the question forces colleges and universities to give greater weight to the other aspects that make a person who they are: such as community and extracurricular involvement, passions and future goals, and even family life. 


It shouldn’t take a devastating pandemic for schools to actually pay attention to the person behind the numbers. In fact, it’s what we should’ve been doing all along.


By: Jessi Rich

Image: The Newnan Times-Herald