Permanently Test Optional?

By Nate Cohen

For decades, the SAT and ACT exams have been the hallmark of the college admissions process. But for students in the graduating class of 2021, taking these tests may not be necessary. 

This news comes in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rendered large gatherings (such as the administration of standardized tests) dangerous to public health. This has caused both the May and June SAT as well as the April ACT to be cancelled. In response to these cancellations, several colleges have adopted a test-optional policy for rising seniors, giving students the choice of not submitting a test score. This growing trend began nearly a month ago, when the University of California announced that all ten of its campuses would be test-optional for the coming year. Since then, nearly 90 more colleges have adopted test-optional policies, including big-name schools like Cornell, Tufts, and Tulane.

Although test-optional admissions is new for many schools, the policy itself dates back to 1969, when Bowdoin College became America’s first test-optional school. Bowdoin and the schools that would follow its lead argued that standardized tests simply weren’t an accurate measure of college preparedness. They also worried that standardized tests disadvantaged students from low-income communities who often lack access to adequate educational resources. While these arguments won over some schools, by and large, colleges continued to require test submissions.

As more schools adopt temporary test-optional policies, many suspect this could be the start of a permanent increase in the number of test-optional schools. Some colleges such as Swarthmore and Oberlin stated they will pilot a test-optional program for the next several years. Meanwhile, other schools like Boston University and Williams announced plans to reassess the policy after the first round of test-optional admissions. This is in addition to the 20 colleges that have taken the opportunity to go test-optional for good. 

But as some predict a turning tide, others remain skeptical. Most colleges have yet to make any changes to their testing policy, and if the pandemic ends soon, they may not need to. Even if most colleges go test-optional this year, there is little evidence to suggest they will continue. In fact, colleges may dislike the policy since it means relying solely on an applicant’s grade point average (GPA) to determine their academic ability. This makes it much harder to compare students academically since, unlike standardized test scores, GPAs are the product of vastly different grading systems. 

While these factors could very well prevent a permanent test-optional takeover, the question still remains as to whether juniors who have not already taken the SAT or ACT still need to. As far as the College Board and ACT are concerned, the answer is yes. In response to the growth in test-optional schools, ACT released a statement saying, “choosing not to test means choosing to limit your options,” and the College Board issued a similar statement as well. These companies have also stressed that submitting the exams to test-optional schools will help students stand out in admissions. 

Whether these statements are accurate or just an attempt for these companies to protect their bottom line is still up for debate. In truth, the necessity for juniors to take these tests remains unknown, and it will likely stay that way for the near future.