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Is Test-Optional In The US Just Another Injustice in the College Application Process?

November 1st marked the first round of college application deadlines for many students around the globe. Between January and February, another round will be underway. Unlike previous years, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new check box on the application: test-optional. The policy allows students to not submit ACT or SAT scores but be evaluated by other requirements like GPA, grades, or essays. Starting as a measure to keep people safe during periods of quarantine, there are now about 1,800 test-optional universities (three-quarters of US four-year universities), according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing

The corruption of the college system has been widely accepted, especially after the Varsity Blue college admissions scandal—a 2019 scam where wealthy families paid to have their children appear as fake student athletes to be admitted into high-level universities. This instance highlighted the other smaller abuses of privilege going on: expensive tutors or unneeded extra time on the standardized tests, bribes and connections to collegiate administrators, and more. Likewise students around the United States experience different ranges of colleges they may consider, based on their qualifications, many of which are due to wealth and resources.  According to a poll by BestColleges (an education tool used by Forbes and Bloomberg), only 23% of college students when asked about the college process believed it is fair. In light of this opinion, many students are thrilled to avoid these exams that are often associated with measures of preparedness or resources (for that exam) rather than intellect. However, the “test-optional” policy may not be the righteous amendment to the college process that it seems to be.

Oftentimes test optional is promoted by colleges as an opportunity to level the playing field or a way to increase diversity. Although the latter is somewhat true, there are several inclinations that suggest the policy does not encourage fairness in applicant selection. Many schools, especially competitive ones, still favor students who submit test scores. In the current stage, top schools require over 4.0 GPAs, stellar extracurriculars, and outstanding essays. In the past, scores below the 1% percentile were also required. Even if the students meet these criteria, they could still be rejected, since acceptance rates for these institutions are often in the single-digits. Given these schools' selectiveness, will they really consider two highly achieving applicants equally, if their applications are similarly impressive but one student is also over-performed on a standardized test? 

The answer, for most top universities, is no. For example, the New York Post reports that of those who were admitted at Vanderbilt University (ranked #13 among national universities on US News 2023 best college list), only 38.9% did not submit test results. Similarly, over 90% of Georgetown University's class of 2025 had submitted test scores. The pattern repeats across Ivy Leagues and competitive institutions—those who submit test scores make up the majority of accepted students.

However, top-tier colleges that implement test-optional policies which explicitly state those choosing not to have their scores considered will be viewed equally to other applicants. One model of this is exemplified in Northeastern University’s FAQs (44 out of 443 US public universities). It states that “Standardized testing is not reviewed by the Admissions Committee during our evaluation process. For applicants who choose to submit standardized testing, we will introduce testing into the discussion during the selection process.” It continues to claim students with or without scores will be considered equally, and to submit scores only if you fall within the middle 50% score range. This suggestion may seem like honest advice, and should be used across universities with the same policy, but the other factors, such as the diversity of an applicant, still affect the legitimacy of their test-optional evaluations.

Since high-standardized testing scores require a great deal of resources—payment to register, textbooks, tutoring and transportation—students from a higher socio-economic status tend to be at an advantage. The Washington Post corroborates that “students from families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of 1,714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1,326” in 2014; frequently, these families are minorities. 

Since then, colleges have been attempting to diversify their applicant pool by identity (race, ethnicity, etc.) and financial class. As a result, test-optional favors students that present identities or lower socio-economic levels that colleges need to uphold their diversity, equity, and inclusion requirements. This seems reasonable that underprivileged individuals from underrepresented backgrounds can have the same opportunity to go to college as affluent students who have been given many resources to succeed. Yet, this diversification factor is another false promise incorporated in the test-optional policy. In April 2021, the American Education Research Journal recorded that “tests-optional policies enhance the perceived selectivity, rather than the diversity in participating institutions.” Therefore, test-optional acts as a screening to view diverse student profiles, yet their resulting student body did not reflect diversity. This way colleges could result in appearing inclusive in the application process. It also differs from students who applied test optional that are less diverse or don’t have disadvantaged backgrounds.

Test-optional failed to incorporate the fairness and inclusivity these elite schools promise. However, it would be negligent to ignore the fact that, for students applying to less selective schools, test-optional can help them be accepted if their score is not optimal. So, consider this: if the school you're applying to is in the top 100 or considered selective, their test-optional policy may not actually encourage equity. On the other hand, if a school you're applying to has a high acceptance rate (>50%), going test-optional will most likely not affect your application.

The college process needs radical amendments that promote fairness, but test-optional is not a step in doing so. In fact the policy includes a series of embedded rules or qualifications that escalate college’s current obsession with exclusion and inequality. That being said, we should continue to be critical of the college system’s current infrastructure.


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