Relief from SAT, ACT during COVID-19 pandemic challenges usefulness of standardized testing in the long term

Considering the impact of optional test scores on admissions equity

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Stanford Admissions announced on June 17 that the submission of SAT and ACT standardized test scores will no longer be required for undergraduate applicants for the incoming class of 2025. In doing so, the University joined a growing list of colleges adopting test-optional policies, both short-term — in Stanford’s case — and in more permanent ways, as exemplified by the U.C. system’s plan to gradually eliminate these tests from admissions profiles completely. 

Stanford Admissions explained that the change was largely catalyzed by “the difficulty students may have in preparing for and accessing admission testing worldwide” as a result of repeated test postponements and cancellations necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, Stanford’s decision may pose various consequences for future applicants as a result of socioeconomic diversity and educational enrichment variability.

Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT have previously been criticized for favoring more affluent students who benefit from greater access to test preparation services and are less impacted by test fees, which can quickly pile up as students retake tests numerous times to achieve higher scores. 

Test-optional policies may “[make] the effects of financial discrepancies between students less apparent… compared to how admissions were before, the underprivileged students are helped because it lessens their disadvantage,” said Niki Krockenberger, an incoming senior at Los Gatos High School.

Jane Boettcher ’21, a representative from the Stanford Student Alliance for Justice in Education (SAJE), agreed that test-optional policies may make the college admissions process more equitable. However, Boettcher said that such changes were necessary to implement even before the current public health crisis and, likewise, should persist beyond the pandemic. 

“During this time, the policy is necessary, as COVID-19 has prevented students from taking these tests,” she said. “But we should also remember that even before this pandemic, there were students who didn’t have this access, yet testing was not made optional.”

Others believe that the elimination of standardized tests from admissions consideration may produce the alternate effect, increasing the effect of socioeconomic status on college admissions deliberations rather than lessening it. 

John Richard, South Peninsula Regional Director for Bay Area tutoring service AJ Tutoring, said that “the tests were being used as a way to help more underprivileged youth who may not have the same test scores still get in based on their merit.” 

Richard cited a task force from the University of California that found that SAT and ACT scores acted as a realistic means of comparison between students with differing income levels and socioeconomic status taken into account. 

“The scores were a way of evening the playing field to some degree and looking for different goal numbers for different kids based on their situation,” Richard said. 

Additionally, a decreased focus on test scores may lead to a greater reliance on grades as a means of comparing applicants, Richard added, which poses new challenges as a result of highly variant grading systems and class difficulty levels across high schools. 

“Obviously grades at one school versus another are very different things… and students [that] have access to more APs and better classes are going to have a better high school experience, so I would imagine some of that will just become more magnified if test scores go away,” Richard said. 

However, even those components that might be weighted more heavily to compensate for lack of test scores “also exist in this [unequal] system and are also similarly influenced by privilege, access to resources and connections,” Boettcher said.

It remains unclear whether test-optional policies will have an immense effect on admissions processes in the near future. High schoolers nationwide are still widely encouraged by tutors and college counselors to attend SAT and ACT administrations once the possibility becomes available, regardless of test-optional policies becoming more widespread.

“For most applicants who can both afford and have time to take tests, I think test scores are still an important part of the application regardless of whether or not they’re optional,” said Izzy Ge, an incoming senior at Mountain View High School. “The option lies more for those who are incapacitated by COVID-19 and are truly unable to submit scores for a justifiable reason — beyond just not wanting to.”

Richard does not anticipate “a huge change” in academic centers such as the one he represents, which is attended by local students looking for standardized test prep as well as general tutoring and assistance. Although test-optional policies eliminate a SAT/ACT score requirement, Richard believes that students with the option to take them will continue to do so, while those “who really fundamentally can’t get a test” will receive a notion of understanding from colleges as a result of the optional component.

While Stanford expects to require test score submission once again for applicants in the incoming class of 2026, other institutions, primarily the U.C. system, plan to completely phase out SAT and ACT scores from admissions consideration over the next several years. It is still undetermined whether the UC system’s model will become a new norm. 

Ultimately, while the shift towards optional testing may mark a win for admissions equity, Boettcher said, the admissions process as a whole requires further scrutiny and analysis in order to fully alleviate all instances of disadvantage due to background and socioeconomic status, adding that “standardized test score disparity is only a symptom — albeit a very clear one — of a much larger issue of structural educational inequality.”

Contact Lexi Kupor at alkupor ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Lexi Kupor is a high schooler writer participating in The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.