News: College Access & Success

Are Those Tests Really Optional?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020  
Posted by: MorraLee Keller, Director of Technical Assistance
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The nation’s rising high school seniors are floating in an abyss of uncertainty about what their college and financial aid application process will be like for the coming year. The COVID pandemic wrecked ACT and SAT testing opportunities starting in March. National test dates and in-school testing dates were cancelled.

Registration and re-registration is now underway for the coming year, but issues abound for students – long waits for customer service calls, a limited number of testing sites, lower capacity at those sites, payment and refund challenges, to name just a few.

Also adding to the testing process confusion is the one common message being communicated by many colleges: “test-optional.” What does that really mean, and exactly how optional are the tests?

NCAN believes from an equity perspective, it is good that colleges go test-optional. There are persistent gaps in scores by race; many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds do not have access to effective test prep or to the tests at all. However, some students may still want to prepare for and take the tests to improve their chances of admission or receiving institutional scholarships.

So what do we say to that student who wants to know “Should I or shouldn’t I?” The standard counseling response would be something like, “Let’s take a look at your college list, and we can check those school’s websites to see if an ACT or SAT score is required for the admissions process.”

The problem with that response is it depends on what day it is and what processes test-optional applies to. Students, families, school counselors, and access personnel have received updated and changing college information since March like it is coming through a firehose. There is really no way to retain all of the updates/changes as they occur on a daily basis. When I first wrote this piece, all but one of the Ivy League colleges had gone test-optional. As the piece went through the editing process days later, the final holdout – Princeton – announced it was going test-optional as well.

Do we take the safe approach and just tell our students to take the tests because they will probably need them for some colleges (though not for others)? Do we require our students to do deep dives into college websites to determine if standardized test scores are not required for the admissions process but are required for merit or departmental scholarships? How much time will we ask our students to spend trying to identify if local or state scholarships are waiving a test score requirement? Better yet, how much time do we want to spend trying to learn all the same things instead of spending time working with our students?

Students who do need to test will probably face limited testing capacity in certain areas of the country. Then how do we advise students who can’t test before required deadlines?

Counselors and advisers will always do the best they can to stay as well-informed as possible. We have to hope that colleges ramp up their communications with all their constituents to help in this confusing time. In the end, we just may have to recommend the “better safe than sorry” approach and advise students that testing may be in their best interest in many cases. We also have to hope that colleges have the foresight to develop new admission and scholarship determination processes with exceptions related to testing in a way that benefits students.

When we circle back to the equity perspective, we still have to advise students with the most accurate information possible for the road through their specific college application process. In a recent article in TRIB Live, Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the nonprofit FairTest, shared this perspective:

“We are especially pleased to see many public universities and access-oriented private colleges deciding that test scores are not needed to make sound admissions decision. By going test-optional, all types of schools can increase diversity without any loss of academic quality. Eliminating ACT/SAT requirements is a ‘win-win’ for students and schools.”

All of us will have to watch the trends and the data to determine what role standardized testing will play in the future college application process. “Test optional” is progress of a sort, but it is not the same as “test eliminated.” Perhaps one day we will be discussing the standardized tests that students used to take.

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