The Deception of Test-Optional College Admissions

2020 was a year that incoming college freshmen will never forget. The pandemic brought about a lockdown that made it nearly impossible to find a location for most college applicants to take an SAT or ACT. COVID-19 forced almost all colleges across the U.S. to announce a “test-optional” policy for applicants—even the selective or top-tier schools’ followed suit—no entrance tests for the first time ever. 

Elated is an understatement for the students who had procrastinated taking a test or deemed themselves bad test-takers. The fact that schools did not require a test and that it wouldn’t hinder their acceptance chances was music to their ears. Unfortunately, colleges are continuing test-optional policies with a completely different agenda.

Post-pandemic, it’s noble to think that schools are going to keep a test-optional option because they have the best intentions for the students; but at the end of the day, colleges are a business.

The tremendous increase in applications has actually only benefited the schools: They can reject more students, boost their rankings, and become a better and more selective school all while collecting $80-100 in application fees. This can yield hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for some top schools which may be why this practice is not discouraged. In reality, if a college really wanted to help all students, they would adopt a test-blind policy which would truly level the playing field. 

Since colleges receive their national rankings based on incoming freshman SAT and ACT scores, test-optional protects the lower scores from being included in their overall average. This helps the college climb the ladder of the coveted U.S. News & World Report rankings. This in turn helps the schools attract students who can or will pay full freight. Many families use these rankings to determine their children’s matriculation.

College Admin needs to preserve rankings to satisfy alumni and donors as well as justify any increases in the cost of attendance or staff raises.

This testing system benefits the school, not necessarily the applicant. Encouraging more students to apply elevates the rankings due to the lower admission rate from the increased applications received. Test scores can only be calculated using higher scores which equals higher rankings. Colleges love to reward these students with amazing scholarships—even full rides!

Once MIT returned back to testing, there was the follow-the-leader as other top-tier schools joined. MIT’s chancellor, Steve Relyea, said the move will “level the playing field” and permit more students to get a “high quality” degree. Noting that underserved communities often don’t have the luxury of IB and AP classes in their high schools by saying that these tests “…identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities.”

Without a test score, admissions officers have shared the immense stress and hectic process of evaluating students with the absence of this data point; it was the only numerical component that was common to all applicants. They knew a 4.0 at one school was not the same at another since they all weigh and calculate scores differently. The test-optional policy created a surge of applicants and ultimately overwhelmed the admissions officers, especially at selective colleges.

When opponents of testing proclaim that SATs and ACTs favor the wealthy, they actually don’t understand that these exams are the only fair way to compare all students equally. A standardized test has standardized questions and standardized answers and anyone can learn the recurring patterns to beat these tests. What becomes biased is that affluential students can replace scores with stellar resumes that can include expensive extracurricular activities and prominent letters of recommendation.

One of the basis of the test-optional policy was to create a more diverse application pool.

Even with the barrage of new applicants, schools have only seen a 1% increase in diversity. This policy decision not only made applying easier but also accessible to more students. On the flipside, one of the byproducts is that having no application discretion has led to a worse drop-out rate.

One consequence of the test-optional rule is that countless students get an artificial sense of hope that a selective or an Ivy League school could be attainable without submitting an SAT or ACT score—”I could have a chance.” Sadly, they don’t realize that they are still at a disadvantage because colleges still favor students who have strong test scores over those who did not submit one. The chances of acceptance can increase as much as 250% over those without a score.

Here are the questions Kim Farley, of the CLT, tells families to ask when planning to apply test-optional:

  1. Are policies different for homeschoolers? (Read the fine print on this one – some colleges exclude homeschoolers or put additional barriers to entry for home-educated students.)
  2. Are the same merit scholarships available to those who do/don’t submit? (Some colleges have no merit available without a test score; others have their top tier and competitive scholarships restricted to a certain test score; and some will just base it on GPA.)
  3. Is the acceptance percentage for students who don’t submit scores comparable to those who do? (Some colleges will say they are test optional but are preferring those with test scores. It isn't always the case, but the stats will show you if your chances might be better with a score than without.)
  4. Does my state have scholarships that require a test score? (Many state-funded scholarship programs require a test score – be sure to read the qualifications that fit your specific circumstance, e.g. homeschoolers may have additional requirements to earn the scholarship funds.)
  5. Does my intended major require a test score? (Students often find they can be admitted to the college but not their intended program of study like nursing, engineering, or education without a test score. Some of these requirements even come from the state, so the college cannot waive these requirements, if this is applicable in the state where your program is located.)
  6. Will placement testing be required if I don't submit test scores? (At some colleges, students will not be slotted for their classes until they take an exam like the Accuplacer. This can delay registration, and it means students are still taking a test; they have just lost the ability to choose the test they take and submit.)

It seems the main reason students don’t want to submit a test score is because it is not as high as they would like it to be. Many students, even Valedictorians, bomb tests like the SAT, ACT, and CLT. The fact is that they are logic and reasoning tests, not content-based or about IQ. It is a different skill set to taking a standardized test that is generally not taught. Critical thinking is a necessary skill for test-taking and college readiness.

The good news is that these tests can be beat. Students can learn the recurring patterns, shortcuts, and test-taking techniques and answer questions in 30 seconds or less. So instead of putting yourself at a disadvantage by not submitting scores, learn to ace these tests and have colleges begging you to enroll.

Learn about College Prep Genius

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Jean Burk

Jean Burk is the author of the award-winning College Prep Genius program and has written numerous articles about the SAT and PSAT tests, high school prep, college prep, and how to get free college. She's currently a featured speaker at the College and Career Summit and podcaster at the Ultimate Homeschool Podcast Network.

She is a Fox News contributor on radio interviews and has been featured as an SAT expert on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, TXA21, CW33, WE, Forbes, UShop TV and The Homeschool Channel. She homeschooled both her children and they each earned free college and incredible scholarships because of their PSAT and SAT scores. Some of the benefits included full tuition, room and board, unlimited laundry and lunchroom passes, study abroad stipends, etc. Her son also earned free law school and her daughter earned free grad school.

She currently travels and speaks about the importance of college preparation at conventions, book fairs, schools, libraries, etc. She has taught her revolutionary, award-winning “Master the SAT” Prep Class all over the United States, mainland China, India, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and Thailand. Many of her students have raised their SAT score as much as 700 points, ACT 9 points, become National Merit Scholars and have gone to an Ivy League for free! Her Vocabcafé book series helps teenagers and younger children increase their knowledge of SAT level vocabulary words through fun and wholesome books and her “High School Prep Genius” book won the “Blue Ribbon Award” for the best and favorite college prep resource along with 21 unsolicited awards for her program.

It's Not That Hard to Homeschool

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