Why Colleges Should Become Test-Optional


The college decision day display in the hallway.

Everyone agrees that taking a test is not the ideal way to spend a Saturday, but for thousands of high school students across the country, it is a reality. The ACT and SAT tests are arguably the most important test a high schooler will take, as they can severely impact college admissions. Despite their best efforts, many may not score as high as hoped. But what if there was a way for a student’s score to not impact their college options?


Well, there already is a way. It’s called “test-optional,” which means students choose whether or not they would like to submit their ACT or SAT scores.


Since the pandemic started, numerous universities have opted to implement a test-optional policy as many students were unable to test due to COVID-19 restrictions. But now that the pandemic is coming to an end, many schools are forced to decide whether or not to keep this option.


We believe that test-optional should stay in place and become the new normal for universities.


From a student standpoint, test-optional universities are the best of both worlds. Students who scored well and want colleges to see that are able to submit their scores, while students who didn’t score as well have no obligation to submit their scores.


The ACT and SAT tests have always been a point of controversy when it comes to college admissions. Several studies have shown that those who score lower tend to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.


According to the Forbes article “Lawsuit Claims SAT And ACT Are Biased—Here’s What Research Says” by Kim Elsesser, White or Asian students scored over 1100 on the 2018 SAT on average, while other racial groups averaged less than 1100.


There are several reasons for this disparity, both social and economic.  Van Thompson explained this in the article “Is the ACT Test an Accurate Measure of a Student’s Aptitude for College? published by The College, an organization that helps students through the college process.


“Cultural bias is a problem with most standardized tests, and the ACT is no exception,” said Thompson.  “Students from different cultural backgrounds might understand test questions differently and be unfamiliar with colloquial phrases or even household objects used in word problems.”


In addition to racial and ethnic bias, there also seems to be a similar pattern among those from lower-income families.


With regard to income, a 2015 analysis found that students with family income less than $20,000 scored lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest,” said Elsesser.


Elsesser went on to say that this is likely due to the fact that those from lower-income families can’t always afford to go to prep classes or purchase study materials.


This brings us to our next point: the ACT and SAT tests do not always accurately measure college readiness or potential college success.


While it is true that there is some correlation between test scores and college grades, careful analyses reveal that high school grades are still the best predictors of college success, with test scores adding only marginally to a predictive model that takes into account high school grades,” said Jill Tiefenthaler in the U.S. News article “SATs Do Not Take the Full Measure of a High School Student.”


High school grades are much more important when it comes to evaluating a student’s potential.  Unfortunately, college admissions offices can disregard good grades if a student has bad test scores.


The College Board has contested this conclusion, maintaining their position that standardized testing is still necessary.  Some essays in the book ​​Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions, which were edited by scholars connected to the College Board, argue that test-optional policies have failed to add sufficient diversity.  They also cited the grade inflation trends, which indicate GPA will become a less and less reliable metric.


However, the solution to the issues they raise is not to rely more on standardized tests.  Instead of going backward and implementing test requirements, colleges should find new ways to add diversity and differentiate among prospective students.  The admissions process needs to move to a more comprehensive view of students, not using a single number to define applicants.


Now that we have discussed how ACTs and SATs can potentially hurt a student’s chance of admission, let’s look at how test-optional has fixed this.


Over the past few years, universities were able to experiment with test-optional and see its effects on admissions decisions and students’ college success. 


One major study, by co-authors Steven T. Syverson, Valerie W. Franks, and William C. Hiss (all of whom work in the college admissions industry), collected data from twenty-eight test-optional four-year colleges.  The study found that colleges that went test-optional received more applicants than they did historically, when these schools required test scores.


Underrepresented minority students were more likely to choose not to submit their scores.  In general, both the number of Black and Latino applicants and accepted students increased.


The accepted students who did not submit test scores had slightly lower first-year college grades, but they eventually graduated at rates equal to or higher than those who did submit scores.  The study dubbed this the “ultimate proof of success.”


Becoming test-optional cannot fix each and every problem in the college admissions system.  But it can help minority applicants and teach admissions officers to focus more on a student’s potential.  Students with exemplary scores can still submit their results, but others are not impaired by low scores.  That alone should be enough to convince colleges to shift away from standardized testing.  This solution is the best of both worlds and the best way forward for college admissions.