As schools and testing centers shut down in spring 2020, it seemed only fair for colleges and universities to suspend ACT and SAT admissions requirements. A pandemic is as good a reason as any to change the rules.
Three years later, and months after the Covid-19 national emergency was declared over, 80 percent of colleges and universities are still following “test-optional” protocols. This trend has generally been celebrated by critics of the tests, who argue that the exams are inherently unfair due to the disproportionately large share of high scores among affluent test takers. However, in practice, the test-optional system is far more exclusionary than mandatory testing requirements ever were.
As the number of students applying to college has been increasing each year since 2019, college admittance is more competitive now than ever. Students with access to college counselors and test tutors (read: wealthier students) know this, and many are still using ACT and SAT exams to stand out.
Students with access to test tutors are aware that the eye of the admissions needle has narrowed, and they are being coached to use their test scores to thread it. As an SAT/ACT tutor in New York City for a tutoring company that charges over $200 an hour, I have worked with multiple students who are encouraged to retest even after scoring in the upper 1500s on the SAT or above a 34 on the ACT. Their parents can afford to give them that extra boost.
Meanwhile, with admission tests voluntary, low-income students tend to opt out. In its 2022 SAT annual report, the College Board reported that students from families earning less than $67,083 annually made up only 27 percent of test takers who reported their family income. Six years earlier, while tests were still mandatory for most college applications, students from families earning less than $60,001 made up a far-larger share: 43 percent of test takers. While the percentage of low-income test takers has radically fallen off, the opposite is true for wealthy students: In 2022, 57 percent of test takers who reported their families’ earnings were from households earning $83,766 or more. This is a jump from 46 percent of student test takers whose families earned $80,001 or more in 2016.
While teaching high school English at a Title III public school in Northern California after the SAT/ACT requirements had just been lifted in 2020, I noticed the morning prep period dedicated to SAT administration was known around campus as a great day to sleep in. There was little to no test prep offered to students, either.
Today, many of the students I tutor are brought to me via partnerships with some of New York City’s most elite and expensive private schools. They are prioritizing test prep as a method of differentiating their students in an overly competitive admissions field.
The glaringly unfair aspect of “test-optional” guidelines is that wealthy students know it’s a meaningless distinction; lower-income students with less access to college counselors, however, do not.
The biggest question here in terms of equity is whether colleges are following through on their pledges to deprioritize test scores in admissions. Are colleges being true to their word and not weighing test scores as highly as other metrics? Or are these tests more significant than schools are letting on?
It turns out that the “test-optional” stamp on most College Board applications may be extremely misleading. A 2019 pre-pandemic survey (the most recent available) reported in the National Association for College Admission Counseling State of College Admissions found that 83 percent of colleges considered admission test scores to be of “considerable” or “moderate” importance. This was only a hair shy of the 90 percent of schools that considered grades influential toward admittance, and significantly higher than the 56 percent of universities that considered writing samples important. While the post-pandemic test-optional guidelines may have diminished the relevance of scores, the question is whether or not that diminished relevancy is more policy than practice.
The bottom line is: Colleges are looking at ACT and SAT scores. Opting out of the tests in a “requirement-free” admissions process could be the difference between denial or admission to a dream school. It could alter student scholarship opportunities as well.
The 2022 acceptance rate at Fordham University was 63 percent among students who submitted scores, compared with 49 percent among those who did not. Similarly, Boston College’s 2022 incoming class recorded an acceptance rate of 25 percent among those who submitted scores and 10 percent among students who did not. This admittance discrepancy holds true for other big name schools, including Barnard, the University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, Amherst, and many more. The glaringly unfair aspect of test-optional guidelines is that wealthy students know it’s a meaningless distinction; lower-income students with less access to college counselors, however, do not.
The percentage of students taking the SAT from high-income families jumped from 46 percent in 2016 to 57 percent in 2022.
The test-optional system is in dire need of restructuring. In order to promote true equity, schools should completely eliminate SAT/ACT scores from the college application process. There’s precedent: As of 2021, none of the University of California schools accept or even consider score reports of any kind. If all universities were to follow suit, it would level the playing field by negating the expenses of tests, tutors and studying time.
Unfortunately, many schools are moving in the opposite direction. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school focused on science and mathematics, will once again require test scores beginning in fall 2023. The university administration argues that test scores help predict students’ success at MIT and aid the school in identifying promising students who may not have had access in high school to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities.
While I disagree with this decision, it is still more equitable than labelling test scores “optional.” At least in the case of MIT, all students will be aware of the requirement and can at least attempt to study accordingly. The deceptively exclusionary message of “test-optional,” however, is often only correctly deciphered by expensive tutors and guidance counselors.
Disregarding test scores and requiring them are both far more transparent than the current system at many schools. With the Supreme Court affirmative action decision injecting some chaos into the college application process, it’s important for colleges to be as straightforward with applicants as possible. The misleading “test-optional” label only complicates the path to college for many low-income students.
Maggie Bigelow is a former public high school teacher and current MFA nonfiction writing candidate at Columbia University.
This story about test-optional admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.