There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had a real and persistent impact on our children’s education. Learning loss continues to be the subject of daily news reports, with SAT and ACT test scores at an all-time low. Overall, math and reading scores on standardized tests are at their lowest level in decades and the college admissions process was thrown into a tailspin when lockdown regulations made taking the traditional SAT and ACT tests difficult.
Colleges and universities are now pivoting away from standardized tests by making SAT and ACT scores optional when it comes to admissions. Virginia colleges and universities have been, for the most part, ahead of the trend:
University of Virginia – Will make the SAT, ACT, AP, and IB tests optional beginning in the 2024-2025 academic year.
· Virginia Tech – Will make the SAT and ACT tests optional for admissions beginning in 2025.
· College of William and Mary – Has been test-optional since 2020
· Virginia Commonwealth University – Test optional unless applicants are applying for the Honors College program or the Guaranteed Admissions Program.
· George Mason University – Has been test optional since 2007 but has other requirements in lieu of SAT or ACT scores such as grade point average, the number of rigorous honors or AP classes taken, and extracurricular activities.
· James Madison University – No longer requires the SAT nor ACT scores for admission.
· Hampton University – This HBCU makes submitting standardized scores optional if the applicant has a minimum of 3.30 GPA or is in the top 10% of his or her high school class. However, a student who wishes to apply for a merit-based scholarship must submit SAT or ACT test scores.
· Hollins University – The small, private, liberal arts women’s college (and the author’s alma mater) is test-optional.
To meet “equity goals,” it is easy to see the appeal of making the test-optional. Colleges and universities naturally want to increase their enrollment numbers. Making tests optional increases the pool of applicants from students from low-income communities who cannot afford the SAT prep books or expensive classes or tutors to help them prepare for these once-critical tests. It also relieves some of the political pressure from those who believe the SAT and the ACT are biased towards those who are wealthy and white.
Parents and students are relieved to have one less task on their long “to-do” list for college applications. Students who believe their SAT or ACT scores do not accurately represent their academic ability feel they can now aspire to attend schools that they previously felt were out of their reach.
While Virginia schools are following the same path as higher education institutions elsewhere, is throwing out the standardized college admissions tests the best way to determine if a school is admitting students who are ready for college-level work?
Frederick Hess, Senior Fellow, and Director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, argues (Forbes magazine, March 2022) that student transcripts are not always an accurate indicator of rigor or proficiency in a subject. Why aren’t transcripts accurate? College admissions offices would have to rely more upon letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and essays – all of which are subjective and can be assisted by schools, parents, or pricy consultants.
The SAT and ACT, on the other hand, are an objective means of assessing a student’s academic potential in college. This contradicts the argument that the tests breed inequity. For those who claim that the SAT and ACT are elitist and racist, the history behind the standardized tests says otherwise. Ivy League colleges, for instance, traditionally used to admit students based on their wealth and position rather than academic merit. In 1933 Harvard University President James Conant proposed putting together an assessment that would make admissions available to anyone who could pass the test. This test became the forerunner of the SAT and forever opened academic opportunities to immigrants, minorities, and the low income. Ironically, Harvard will make the SAT and the ACT optional in 2027.
Despite the aspirational goals of those who believe that the admissions process can be made more inclusive by using factors other than standardized tests, there is great peril in relying upon the gut feelings of admissions administrators. In fact, there is sound economic research noting that the more subjective the criteria, the more open to discrimination the process becomes.
Academic mismatch is also a very real problem when the process is driven by a desire to meet certain predetermined quotas. While there is strong academic research on both sides of the “mismatch” debate, there is no question that ridding the objective testing criteria from the process will lower the information available to students as they decide the best fit for their academic abilities. In turn, more students are likely to land in an academic environment to which they are unaccustomed or unprepared in order to meet admissions goals. This, in turn, can crush a student’s psyche as well as put them and their families under the pressure of unnecessary debt if an unprepared student chooses to drop out.
How well students who submit SAT or ACT scores do in college versus those who do not will be an interesting study. But, as colleges in Virginia abandon these tests, they should consider the potentially negative impact this decision could have on those they hope to help.
Sadly, eliminating the standardized test is just one more means of watering down education to achieve equity and attendance goals that are hard to meet as our public schools continue to struggle academically. Greater effort should be placed on improving our educational system at the elementary and secondary levels, especially in our poor and minority communities, rather than focusing on an untested subjective college admittance system. The real answer for our colleges and universities is for our communities to stop ignoring the educational crisis that was exposed and worsened during the pandemic!
Nancy Almasi is a Researcher at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. She may be reached at Nancy@thomasjeffersoninst.org.