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What Does Test Optional Mean? It Means Take the Tests

standardized test 1

Profanity.  Hurled insults.  Accusations of bullying.  Appeals for intervention to break up the fight.

Sounds like a fight on a middle school playground, right?

Actually, it was a bunch of professionals arguing over what the phrase “test optional” really means in college admissions, especially in light of the changes brought by Covid-19.

The exchange took place on the electronic talk list for members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). As can happened in fora where participants do not share the same perspectives, things got heated.

Some, claiming to “tell it like it is” asserted that the college admissions emperors definitely have no clothes and would use the test scores insofar as they were able behind closed doors, while others in admissions offices proclaimed just as forcefully that they would not allow the absence of scores to hurt a candidate’s chances for admission.

As I say to all my families and during each of my presentations, this so-called “admissions process” is not about the student; it’s all about the colleges.  They direct it, they create the strategies, they call the shots.  The pandemic has not changed this fundamental fact.

What has changed is that many, many thousands of students have been unable to take the SAT or ACT tests.  Thus, many colleges have announced—some with great reluctance and hesitation—that they will not require the tests this year. They have changed their testing polices for admission.

Before going into the arguments, let’s break down these new policies into two categories.

Test blind

This is the most gracious approach to the problem.  Some schools, such as CalTech, have decided they will not even look at test scores, even if they are submitted.  Within the application interfaces, colleges can suppress certain information from ever being downloaded into their own data systems.  A test blind school will look at all applications without any reference to scores whatsoever.  The admissions office won’t even see SAT or ACT scores.  Thus all students are immediately put on an even (scoreless) playing field—or so it seems (more on that in a minute).

Test optional

This is the middle ground:  students may choose to send scores if they have them.  The vast majority of schools have responded to the cancelation of standardized tests in this way. And this is where things get very sticky.  Students without SAT or ACT scores have no choice:  they submit nothing because they have nothing.  But what about a student was able to take the test?  Should they submit or not?  And how, exactly, will a student with scores be compared to a student without them?  Bear in mind that the inability to take the tests has not affected all students equally.  Low-income students have been the hardest hit.  Rich students whose parents have invested thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) in test prep often were able to find an open spot (sometimes more than a day’s drive from home—or a cross-country plane trip).  Other families whose kids attend the same schools may have decided the health risks were not worth it, so their son or daughter has no scores while the classmate who traveled to Nebraska has them.  Because of this lack of clarity, professionals in all parts of the admissions industrial complex have been postulating how admission officers will make their decisions (this is where the profanity and insults began to flow on the NACAC talk list).  Unlike the “test blind” policy in which scores will not be considered for any applicant, the playing field under the “test optional” policy is unclear at best and completely uneven at worst.

Test optional policies have been around for a long time—decades in some cases, such as for Bates and Bowdoin.  FairTest, a lobbying group aimed at eliminating standardized testing in college admission, has been encouraging more schools to adopt this approach, and before the pandemic, around a thousand colleges and universities already had instituted test optional policies.  As of this writing, 1570 schools are test now optional, which amounts to two-thirds of all colleges and universities awarding bachelor degrees in the US.

Holistic Review vs. Clear Standards

College and universities, both private and public, emphasize (even before the pandemic) that they perform a “holistic review” of students for admission.  Supposedly, no one criterion is determinant.  The admissions officers look at everything before rendering your decision.  These factors include both objective and subjective indicators, but the only objective ones are test scores, class rank, and level of awards earned from international down to local.

Moreover, in poring over the many messages on other professional information exchanges, it becomes apparent that some schools will still see scores even if the student elects on the application to go test optional.  This is because the colleges control what they download from the Common Application.  If the student enters the scores into the application, then an admissions officer at a test optional school may still be able to see those scores.  Even if the student has asked that the scores NOT be considered, the reader of the application cannot really “unsee” the scores.  [This is why we tell our students NOT to report scores on the application at all…ever…so that they don’t inadvertently send scores they don’t want admissions folks to see].

While I’d like to believe that an admissions officer will duly take the student’s wishes into account, if the score is on the application I am still going to assume that the admissions officer will somehow, someway take these score into account in the “holistic” review—even if they promise not to.  If it’s on the application, it will be taken into account—even informally or subliminally.  You can’t unsee a score that is staring at you on the page.

Whom Do You Trust?

When the process is so subjective and the process so opaque, whom can you trust to give a kid a fair shake? Can we really trust the people in an admissions office to make the best choices?

Stand out in college admissions

Now let me just say that I think that the vast majority of college admissions officers are honorable people.  They believe in their mission to open up higher education to a wide variety of young people.  The believe that universities are engines of social mobility, and they may believe (against the evidence) that the holistic process of admissions is as fair and transparent as possible.  They try hard to balance the needs of the institution they serve while offering opportunity for deserving young people.

And yet, given the extraordinarily subjective nature of this process, how can we really trust that the application my son or daughter submits to a particular college will get a fair shake?  Since the process is emphatically not transparent, and since the judgments being rendered seem—from the outside—totally capricious and random, why would I believe the calming rhetoric coming from admissions offices?  For many, college admission is a very high stakes game.  If the success or failure of my daughter’s application turns on the subjective judgment of a couple of anonymous people in the admission office—and not on any objective indicators like test scores—how can I be confident that the process works?

A great number of families do not trust that the process works.  So, they hire independent college consultants to help them navigate the mysterious world of college admission.  These families understand the inherently subjective nature of the process and engage specialists to help give their kids an edge.

What Private College Counselors Tell Their Clients

Quite simple:  take the tests.

“Test optional” means take the tests.  And get a high score.

If you want to go to an elite college, and you have the opportunity (or can create the opportunity—even by driving across three states to an open testing site), you will have a better chance with a score than without.

And this is where the shouting started on the electronic talk list:  aren’t we advocating taking unnecessary health risks in a pandemic?  Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?

At Great College Advice, we are telling our clients to weigh the risks against the rewards.  In an admissions process with very, very few objective data points, the possession of a positive, very useful data point can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.  So if you have been planning and plotting for years about how to get into one of the nation’s most selective universities, you may want to take the health risks in order to achieve your longer term objective.

Furthermore, private college counselors—and others who work with high-achieving, hard-driving students—know that colleges can pledge an oath not to judge an application negatively if it arrives on their desk without test scores.  But these pledges are impossible to verify.  And they are pretty empty, given the institutional incentives to bring in students with high scores, if they have them.

You see, colleges are…

Slaves to the Rankings

The real problem with the increasing subjectivity of the admissions process is that colleges, themselves, are held to some very clear, very objective standards themselves.  The rankings organizations, led by US News & World Report, have not even tried to offer any sort of grace to colleges.  There is no hiatus on using particular numbers—including the average test scores of entering students—in determining a college’s rank.

To my knowledge, no rankings organization has made a clear announcement about how they will take the new test optional environment into account when sorting out colleges from best to worst.

Even colleges with “test optional” admissions policies have incentives to collect test scores that are at the upper ends of their ranges.  They want the high scores, but don’t want the low ones. Colleges that have been test optional for decades, including Bates and Bowdoin, still report “average” test scores of incoming students to the ratings agencies and to the US government.  But these averages are skewed, because only students with high scores will “opt” to include them on their application.

Test optional colleges won’t say it out loud, but they really prefer that students with high test scores submit them, and those with lower test scores “opt” not to send them.  This way, the average submitted test scores remain high—and this is the number that the test optional college can report to the ratings organizations.  And while they won’t say it out loud, they WILL tell me sotto voce.  When I call to ask whether they’d like this a particular score or not, I receive instant clarity: “oh, please, yes, send us that score” or “the student would do well to go test optional.”  (The team at Great College Advice has received this clarity three times in the last week when calling on behalf of our clients).

The institutional incentive to move up in the rankings is why it is so difficult—even impossible—to believe that schools that have announced that they are test optional will really and truly take no account of test results when reviewing an application in a “holistic” manner.

Yes, the admissions office can swear to me on a stack of Bibles that “the absence scores will make no difference.”  But as my grad school professor always said, “Don’t listen to what they say; watch their hands.”

However, we can’t watch their hands.  The process of deciding whom to admit and whom to reject is secretive, opaque, and “holistic”—which means it is entirely subjective.

The only way to convince me that test scores won’t be considered in any way in the admissions process is for the school to either implement an entirely test-blind policy and suppress the scores from even reaching the admissions office, or else renounce its participation in the rankings game.

Which might happen when hell freezes over.

Only a small minority of colleges and universities have done what CalTech has done—to announce a completely test-blind policy.  Few are brave enough to go this route.  Most of the Ivies have said that the test-optional environment of the pandemic is only for a year or two, and then they are likely to go back to requiring the tests.  While I can’t be sure, I suspect that their hesitation to go test blind stems from two factors.

SATs and ACTs Are Not Going Extinct—Because Colleges Need Them

First, the tests are convenient.  Not long ago a dean of admissions of one of the Ivies bragged in a presentation to alumni that his staff had not grown despite a three-fold rise in the number of applications.  In the next breath, he insisted that every application was given a thorough “holistic” review.  This is an impossible contradiction—or else he was a hellish manager.  It would be impossible for the same size staff to read triple the number of applications with the same care and consideration without some sort of short cut.  The test scores provide this short cut.  So top tier colleges use test scores as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Second, the rankings of the Ivies and other top tier schools are tied to the test scores.  If the rankings organizations use the test scores, then what possible incentive would there be for a college to stop considering scores that helped keep them at the top of the rankings?

As with so much in college admissions—and in the administration of colleges—the rankings are the tail that wags the dog.  The rankings become the key performance indicators (KPIs) of college presidents.  Trustees hammer rankings as managerial priorities.  The rankings even are tied to a college’s ability to borrow money on the capital markets, because the Moody’s bond rating of a college is also tied, in part, to the rank.

Colleges and universities are, in many respects, slaves to the rankings. Since the rankings include test scores, colleges have very little incentive to stop using them entirely.  Maybe CalTech can afford to do so because its overall budget it not overly dependent upon the tuition revenue of undergraduates (with only 900 undergrads, a raft of graduate students, and a juggernaut of a research budget funded by government and other grants).  But a small, liberal arts college like Bates or Bowdoin is comfortable with going test optional, because they can count on students with subpar scores “opting” not to send them, and students with impressive high scores “opting” to send them.

I’m glad that more colleges and universities have adopted test optional policies.  For many families, this change has lowered the stress level.  For some, however, it has made them less realistic (“Johnny’s GPA is not great, and he doesn’t really stand out much, but Penn is now test optional, so should he go ahead and apply?”).  Miracles do happen, I guess.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  “Test optional” policies just make the whole college admissions process more subjective.  College admissions leaders who reassure us all that they give a “holistic” review of each and every application are just blowing the same smoke they always have.  They want us to believe the process is somehow meritocratic.

But families know better.  Which is why business is still pretty good.  Even in a pandemic.

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