The “Test-Optional” Trend – Good or Bad?

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By George Leef

It used to be the case that every American high school student who had any thoughts about college took either the SAT or ACT. Both are standardized tests meant to assess how “college ready” a student is. Those who scored very well knew they would be accepted and probably do well at their school of choice. On the other hand, those who scored poorly understood that as an indication that they’d probably be better off if they looked into non-college options.

That began to change about 20 years ago, as a small number of colleges announced that they would consider applications from students even if they had not taken either of those tests (or did not want to report their scores). Activists applauded this, saying that the SAT and ACT were “unfair” and not good predictors of college success. In the last few years, the “test-optional” trend has gained momentum and that has the opponents of standardized testing giddy.

For example, this Inside Higher Ed story makes it sound as though dropping the requirement for students to submit SAT or ACT scores is an unalloyed good. One after another, the college officials interviewed declare that their admissions process has been improved by dropping the test requirement. That’s because they now receive applications from some students who otherwise might have thought they didn’t have a chance at the school.

At no point, evidently, did the author of the piece think to ask about the extreme variability of the information these schools rely upon instead: high school records. Some high schools are very rigorous (for instance, the famed Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Fairfax, VA) while many others are academically weak, giving students inflated grades but poor college preparation. I wrote here about a student named Kashawn Campbell who graduated at the top of his high school class in Los Angeles, but upon beginning his studies at UC-Berkeley, discovered that he was far behind his classmates in reading and writing ability.

The obvious problem is that colleges will get many more “false positives” (that is, students who look academically good but aren’t) from high school records than they will from SAT or ACT scores. Very rarely will a weak student manage to guess well enough to pull out a stellar score on either test, but our high schools graduate lots of students who look great on paper but at best belong in a community college.

As an analogy, do you think that an NFL team, when scouting players they might draft, would ignore objective measures of football ability, such as time in the 40 yard dash or the weight they can bench press, in favor of just their college records, knowing that some players compete in far more demanding conferences than do others? Of course not. That’s because pro football teams want to win the most games they can. But for college administrators, there is no winning or losing, so they’re free to indulge their egalitarian whims.

Bear in mind that the issue here is not whether students who did not take one of the standardized tests (or if they did, don’t want to report their results) will be able to go to college. American higher education is open to virtually everyone, if only to begin at a community college. The issue is where students will enroll. The impact of the test-optional movement is to place some students who don’t appear to be good candidates for our more prestigious colleges into them. (At the same time, of course, an equal number of students who otherwise would have been accepted at those schools will have to go elsewhere.)

As a consequence, some students are mismatched – enrolled in schools where they struggle to keep up. The test-optional trend thus works much the same way that “diversity” admissions does.

For a balanced look at the dispute over standardized admissions testing, a recent book entitled Measuring Success is must reading. My Martin Center colleague Jenna Robinson recently discussed it here.

I am not arguing that colleges should be compelled to run their admissions policies in any particular way. If administrators want to ignore the strong evidence of college readiness given by the SAT or ACT, they should be free to do so. My point is that others who care about the school, particularly trustees and alumni, might question the advisability of going test-optional, considering all the costs and benefits carefully.

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