Test Optional—Or Maybe Not

(IECA)  By Elizabeth Stone, PhD (IECA) (CA) —

The role of standardized testing in college admissions is one that has been contested and questioned throughout its history. Although the SAT and the ACT serve, to
an extent, the purpose of “objectively” comparing students across the globe, the equity of the tests is quite limited. They have repeatedly been shown to have problematic gender, ethnic, and cultural biases. In

addition, extensive test prep, often limited to well-resourced students, dramatically increases scores. Aware of this inequity, college admissions officers have increasingly been adopting a “test optional” policy. Through my research on and experience with test optional policies, I have gained a clearer view of the inconsistencies and misinformation generated by those policies.

As an independent educational consultant (IEC) for more than 15 years, I have struggled when advising students with extreme test anxiety whether to take the SAT or ACT or to simply apply to test optional schools. Students’ anxiety may stem from a history of poor performances on standardized tests; general test anxiety; learning differences, such as dyslexia; English as a second language; or slow processing of written information. Initially, I was excited to offer students the option of opting out of tests, and I would direct them to Fair Test, which lists 900 colleges as test optional.

That solution, however, has not proven to be simple. As I conducted more research on test optional schools, I found errors in databases that listed schools as test optional or test required when they were not, and I became confused trying to decipher the terminology used to describe individual schools’ testing requirements. After speaking with admission officers, I was bewildered to find that many institutions were adding requirements for students who applied

test optional. I was exceptionally horrified when a Midwestern liberal arts college’s admission officer told me that his college automatically plugged in a false test score for students who did not submit their own test scores. The fake score was low enough to disqualify the students from receiving merit scholarships.

What Test Optional Really Means

One of the challenges we face as IECs is providing students with accurate information about testing policies. I have found that the information provided to us through search engines and websites paints incomplete and often inaccurate pictures of test-optional policies.

I spent some time on the Common Application Standardized Test Policy search engine as a mechanism to learn about different test policies. The Common App offers four categories related to testing in addition to “Always Required.” The number of colleges listed appears as follows:

  • Sometimes Required 153
  • Never Required 72
  • Flexible 41
  • Ignored 6

    There is no information provided regarding what those categories mean, only that they apply to full-time US citizens and permanent

residents and degree-seeking students and that they are “minimum requirements.” Does “test flexible” mean that the college will consider student scores only at the student’s request? Does it
mean the college will be flexible about which standardized test

it will accept, i.e., an AP or SAT subject test score instead of the general SAT/ACT score? To decipher this ambiguous terminology, I looked at specific university websites to clarify individual policies. Following are a few examples of what I found.

DePaul University is listed as test flexible on the Common Application, but its website doesn’t explain what test flexible means, rather it states: “Because we evaluate each applicant holistically and individually, there is no formula we can provide to help you decide,” so it won’t tell you whether you should submit a test or not and without more guidance about what “holistic” means, IECs are at a loss on how to advise students. DePaul does offer students the option of writing four additional essays in lieu of test scores, but the College Board’s Big Future website lists standardized test scores as “very important” to admissions while application essays are listed as “considered.” Such ambiguous and inconsistent messages are unacceptable for students and IECs alike.

New York University’s test flexible program is entirely different than that of DePaul, allowing for students to send in any combination
of scores from various tests. Lake Forest is listed as “sometimes required” on the Common App and the website states that they

will dismiss a test score requirement if a student interviews with an admission counselor.

Brandeis is “sometimes required,” specifying that test scores are required for international applicants, homeschooled students, and those with a GED; however, the Common Data Set (a standard reporting form used by US News and World Report, Peterson’s, and College Board to collect information on colleges) shows that the ACT or SAT is required. And Brandeis’s website, indicates that 92% of enrolled students submitted test scores, but no data is provided on the number of admitted students who did not submit scores. Brandeis also allows several different tests to be submitted, but provides no information about competitive scores on alternatives, such as AP tests, subject tests, or IB exams, leaving students without guidance on how best to craft the

Savannah College of Art and Design’s test policy is listed as “ignored” on the Common Application, although SCAD’s online admission requirements provide instructions on where US citizens should submit official ACT or SAT scores. It doesn’t explain how the test scores are used, except a reference to a math score minimum required for a specific master’s degree program.

Bowdoin College is in the Common Application as “never required,” but it actually does require scores for homeschooled students and those who have narrative report cards instead of letter grades. Surprisingly, Bowdoin, which has been test optional since 1969, requires all matriculating students to submit test scores the summer before attending, stating that those scores are needed
for research purposes and academic advising. I don’t know how Bowdoin enforces that policy, but to an unsuspecting student looking for a truly test optional college and wishing to avoid taking any standardized test, this requirement violates the spirit of test optional.

Alternative Option Pitfalls

The alternate options given to students also have inherent difficulties. If a subjective interview to prove that “drive and a passion for learning” (as stated on Lake Forest’s website
for example) are more important criteria for admission than standardized scores, then why accept test scores at all? If colleges are going to require an interview in lieu of scores, then students and IECs should be able to obtain more information on the purpose of the interview, how the interview is evaluated, and how students who interview are considered compared to test-submitting students for the purposes of scholarships as well as admission. In addition, at the time of application, how will a prospective student know if an interview is obtainable?

Even additional essays, which are easily coached, likely lend little more information than is already present on the Common Application. In my practice, no student has chosen to write those four DePaul essays—in fact, DePaul reported to me in personal communications that more than 90% of its applicants submit test scores.

NYU’s “test flexible” option and Brandeis’s “sometimes required” option assume that students know how to interpret test scores. I suspect students might be very confused by the choices. For example, students can send in subject tests instead of the ACT or SAT, but a 700 on SAT subject test Math 2 ranks a student in the 48th percentile while a 590 in Math on the “old” SAT would place a student in the 71st percentile. The “new” SAT percentiles are even more complex: how many students understand the differences

in cohorts who take subject tests versus the general population of students who take ACT or SAT tests? It would be so easy for a student to send in subject test scores that were not favorable.

As I was finishing this article, Western Oregon University made headlines for announcing it would be test optional for 2017. The caveat, however, was that only students who submitted test scores could compete for the college’s most prestigious scholarships. Going test optional has the (perhaps intended) result of actually increasing a college’s selectivity by suppressing low test scores,

a well-documented phenomenon. For example, Mount Holyoke went test optional in 2001. In 1999, it reported the middle 50% of SAT Verbal as 600–660 and SAT Math as 579–650. In 2015, Mount Holyoke’s Common Data Set reported its middle 50% as SAT Verbal 620–730 and SAT Math 610–735.

Colleges routinely advise students not to submit test scores that
fall outside the middle 50% or, as the Brandeis website says, not to allow “applicants to decide for themselves whether their test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential.” How does a typical high school student unpack those messages? If a student has tested four times, that test score may very well feel like a strong indication of a student’s ability. And how will a student decide what reflects their potential for academic success in college?

Call for Clarity

In closing, I challenge you as IECs to do some research as well. Check out the Common Data Set; spend time on the Common Application and colleges’ websites. As you find discrepancies, confusing data, and inconsistent policies, contact the colleges and the reporting services and make those issues known. And be sure your college athletes know that NCAA Division 1 and 2 and NAIA require student athletes to have minimum ACT or SAT scores without regard to individual college admission policies. Collectively we can work for clarity and equity in the admission process for the benefit of all students