Test scores do not define students — this is what colleges need to understand.

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the spring and summer SAT and ACT tests were canceled. Since March, only one ACT has been offered, and no SAT tests. These issues prompted many colleges throughout the nation to go “test-optional”, meaning that applicants were not required to submit their standardized test scores. Students across the nation sighed with relief.

“We have been considering going test-optional for a few cycles now,” William and Mary’s Assistant Dean of Admissions Christian Burnett said. “We decided we could not require students to submit something they either didn’t have access to, or took while under extreme circumstances such as during a pandemic.”

So far, it makes sense that colleges went test-optional in light of the pandemic, but should they permanently implement this application policy? Yes. Yes, they should. 

Colleges claim that the purpose of standardized tests in college admissions is to provide an objective measure of a student. Theoretically, a high SAT or ACT score shows that the student is ready to handle a challenging college course load. But, this is not necessarily true.

In an article by PBS, Dean of Admissions at Bates College, William Hiss shared information about his study comparing the college GPAs of students who submitted their test scores and those who took advantage of a test-optional policy. He found that there was only a .05 discrepancy between the two groups. Conclusively, test scores are not indicators of college success.

Course rigor and class grades in high school are more accurate indicators of how a student will do in college. If a student took the most challenging classes available to them at their high school and earned perfect or nearly perfect grades, this shows their diligence. It may not necessarily indicate their intelligence, but why does that matter? Having a lower IQ should not keep you out of college. In fact, it should show a college that you are an engaged student, willing to do anything it takes to succeed.

“A successful W&M (Willam and Mary) applicant is strong in all areas, both academic and extracurricular,” Burnett said. “As such, a student who typically had higher scores also had a higher GPA or more rigorous course load. Therefore, the caliber and level of student excellence shouldn’t change significantly.” 

In addition, rigorous high school courses, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, allow students to gain the skills and strategies necessary to succeed in college courses. For example, in high school, students will have to budget their time, collaborate with other students and develop organizational skills. Standardized tests assess completely different abilities that are irrelevant in college and beyond. In fact, an SAT reading strategy that experts recommend is skipping over the passage and going straight to the questions. Your college English professor would frown upon that.

Not only do colleges want students who are going to be successful in their courses, but they also want students who will make a difference in the world. They claim that students should show passion and achievement. Implementing a test-optional policy would prove that’s really their priority.

“Colleges are looking for students who care — about people, about communities, about the subjects they study,” Allison Tate, a college admissions consultant said. “It’s not about gaming your GPA or checking off boxes on an app. It’s about figuring out who you are and where you will thrive and grow and become the person you are meant to be, not the person you think colleges are looking for.”

This makes sense. Genuine interest and dedication show colleges a student’s intrinsic motivation, which will last through their future. Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not always an accurate representation of career success.

“The human mind is simply so complex and so multifaceted and fluid, that trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley,” Hiss said when talking to PBS. “I would never say the SATs and ACTs have no predictive value for anybody; they have predictive value for some people. We just don’t find them reliable cross populations.”

 Almost no student in their right mind would take the ACT for fun. Most students are extrinsically motivated by the desire to get into college. Students either have to study over summer break, or cram it into the school year while juggling classwork and extracurriculars. With permanent test-optional policies, teens wouldn’t have to spend as much time preparing. They could spend their spare time on activities they genuinely enjoy.

“High school students need to think about what they want out of high school, out of college, and out of life,” Tate said. “This pandemic has forced all of us to recognize the fragility of life and question how we spend our time. Pursue interests you actually love, things that make you excited about getting up every day. Take classes that are hard for you and figure it out. Learn. Connect. Read books.” 

Not only will this free up time for teens to pursue activities they love, it will also be better for their future. Spending the summer conducting research or exploring the arts instead of studying may help a student shape their interests or prepare for their career.

Aside from all of its merits, there is one problem that arises with the idea of a test-optional system: schools throughout the country are inconsistent on how leniently they grade students. This is why schools have previously put more emphasis on other aspects of the application, such as test scores. But Tate, who has years of admissions consulting experience, believes that schools will find other ways to assess students fairly — test or no test.

“I think that if schools continue to be test-optional, they will need to ask for more writing from students — grade inflation and discrepancies are a big problem in our high schools,” Tate said.

Although colleges with test-optional policies will no longer be able to rely on the SAT and ACT as a consistent measurement of students, focusing on other aspects of the application, will help them identify the deserving applicants.

“I do not think it will affect admissions at elite schools very much — I think they will rely on teacher recommendations and essays to corroborate GPAs, and though it might be a more tedious slog without the additional information, they will likely end up with similar outcomes as they would have with test scores,” Tate said.

At this point, some universities throughout the nation are doing a test-optional trial run for three years. Many are unsure whether or not this policy will continue after the trial.

“This way not only are we ensuring that current juniors and sophomores who were affected by COVID are given a fair application process, but we can also build a full cohort on campus to see how being test-optional changes our academic makeup,”  Burnett said. 

The coronavirus has sparked changes in our world, and test-optional policies are a positive change worth keeping. Colleges, make it happen. Go test-optional. Permanently.