Test-optional policies make college admissions more holistic, equitable

“That’s it!” The door slammed shut as my friend flounced into the classroom, where the rest of us had been silently waiting for second period to start. “If I don’t get a 1600 on the SAT, I’m not getting into college and school was for nothing!” Her eyes were wide with fear and frustration.

Mildly alarmed, I looked down at my uniform penny loafers as I fidgeted with my eraser, collecting its shavings in my hand and thinking to myself, “Has it come to this?” Is anything less than a perfect 1600 practically a death sentence? Is your SAT score the numerical definition of your worth? Is the only point of school to prepare you for this test? Yikes.

Proponents of standardized tests tout them as the fairest way to measure merit, serving as an impartial assessment of how hard students work. But, in reality, standardized tests are epicenters for cruel optimism and self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Cruel optimism stems from the myth students are led to believe: once the test begins, everyone has a fair chance at success. In practice, these tests are treated as a mercurial, difficult-to-please higher being; if you’re lucky enough, you’ll stumble upon that elusive formula for success. Perhaps if you pay enough to sign up for multiple exams and hire the most expensive tutor, you will be granted a high score. 

Not everyone can afford to play this game. High test scores are becoming ubiquitous among the elite, existing as demonstrations of economic status rather than merit. Because of this, we’ve come to live in a world in which standardized test scores are scarlet letters in the exact opposite sense of the object. Elite students proudly reveal their scores to anyone who will listen and expect a standing ovation when they announce their near-perfect 1570, even though the students next door probably have similar scores. 

The prerequisites for joining this “99th-percentile club” are far from accessible if you exist outside of the elite bubble, though, and therein lies the problem. Studies support the conclusion that race and income have an increasingly strong correlation with high scores. In an investigation by Ember Smith and Richard Reeves at The Brookings Institute, the two found that “the average [math] scores for Black (454) and Latino or Hispanic students (478) are significantly lower than those of white (547) and Asian students (632).” Of course, this score chasm is not widening without a dire ripple effect.

Now enter the self-fulfilling prophecy: “Black and Hispanic … students are significantly underrepresented at selective universities.” Why? Well, because high test scores are often indispensable to admission to prestigious universities, and students, often correctly, believe that if they don’t have that near-perfect score, rejection looms. So, in some cases, they just don’t apply, even if the university would have been a neat fit for them. Additionally, application fees serve as a compounding deterrent to schools with stringent test score requirements; some students may decide not to apply because they cannot afford to spend money on a university they already thought they had slim to no chance of getting into. 

The pandemic’s changes to higher education admissions processes present an opportunity to escape this unjust status quo. The termination of SAT subject tests by College Board and the decision by Tufts and other universities to move to a test-optional admissions process is evidence of momentum towards a potential permanent test-optional process. Tufts has seen a 35% increase in applications this year, along with the most ethnically and racially diverse applicant pool yet, statistics that are directly linked to the newfound freedom felt by qualified candidates whose test scores would otherwise deter applications to top schools.

Cruel optimism and self-fulfilling prophecies are tragic phenomena that this new era is begging us to leave behind as we move forward to a standardized test-free college application process. At some point in the future, I’d like to believe we’ll look back at standardized testing and realize that no complex individual deserved to be quantified as a four-digit number. Hopefully, we’ll recognize that school is not just about preparing for standardized tests and is meant to instill lifelong traits of discipline, tenacity and compassion in every student. 

This lapse in required test scores is the panacea: when students aren’t tied down by test scores, they pursue their dream schools, explore their passions and may one day contribute greatly to the world. We must stay on this path so we can effectuate change by inviting a more inclusive and dynamic group of intelligent students to apply and join the college student population.


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