The State of Standardized Testing in College Admissions

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Test optionality has been a discussion among higher education institutions for years as advocates campaign to eliminate standardized testing to further meritocratic admissions. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this debate, which precluded many prospective students from visiting SAT and ACT testing sites and sitting for exams. 

A recent study found that approximately one-third of colleges and universities nationwide were test-optional pre-COVID. During the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, many colleges and universities implemented test-optional or test-blind policies. 

Most schools are currently test-optional, not test-blind, so students are no longer required to submit SAT and ACT scores but can at their discretion. Since then, the schools that have remained test-optional are promising to continue to do so in the near future. Notably, Harvard recently decided to extend its policy into 2026 admissions.

MIT and Georgetown, however, are among some institutions that will require SATs or ACTs in the coming year. UC schools will not consider test scores in the admissions process and have implemented a policy in which students can automatically qualify for admission if they meet specific criteria.

High schools, higher education institutions, and testing companies have adjusted to the constraints of the pandemic with new technology, and many have resumed in-person testing. But colleges and universities are challenged to continue with standardized testing requirements.

Students Adversely Affected by Standardized Testing Requirements

Throughout the years, many higher education institutions and outside organizations have researched whether students from marginalized communities are adversely affected in the admissions process by mandated standardized testing. 

APs are not widely available in low-income communities, raising the question of whether universities moving away from standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, will increase the utilization of other forms of testing. In this case, the same problem arises: low-income students are excluded from access, and these test measures could demand equally rigorous and expensive preparation, including courses and tutoring. 

The achievement gap has yet to close, and low-income communities may be disadvantaged. “Historically, low-income students as a group have performed less well than high-income students on most measures of academic success—including standardized test scores, grades, high school completion rates, and college enrollment and completion rates.” (Reardon, 2013, p. 1)

Low-income families and communities have fewer resources than high-income-level communities. Therefore, standardized testing has played a significant role in the lack of academic achievement of low-income families.

Additional Admissions Factors May Hold More Weight

If test-optional becomes more commonplace, other admissions factors, such as APs, GPA, and extracurriculars, could hold more weight in the admissions process. Many colleges use AP credits to count toward graduation requirements or allow students to opt-out of taking courses they studied in high school. 

For example, MIT admissions prefer to judge applicants’ AP calculus scores rather than SAT scores. Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, explains his choice to reinstate standardized testing as a criterion despite its stigma.

“The standardized exams are most helpful for assisting the admissions office in identifying socioeconomically disadvantaged students who are well-prepared for MIT’s challenging education but who don’t have the opportunity to take advanced coursework, participate in expensive enrichment programs, or otherwise enhance their college applications,” Schmill said in a press release

And the former associate dean of MIT, Les Perelman, who was once described by the New York Times as one of the SAT’s “harshest critics,” concurs certain AP and IB scores are a better predictor of successful engagement with MIT’s specialized curriculum. 

Colleges and universities expect students to arrive freshman year already knowing certain fundamentals. However, because MIT admissions recognize the limited scope of AP courses and their unequal availability across high schools, it still uses the SAT in its application process to gauge prospective students’ aptitudes. 

By upholding the SAT in its admissions process instead of using better predictor tests (IB and AP) that are often unavailable or underfunded, MIT commits itself to inclusivity. But Perelman specified that he judges the merits of standardized testing as a factor in admissions on a case-by-case basis.

As seen in the MIT admissions process, the shift raises the question of whether preference for one type of test over another fundamentally improves inclusive admissions for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. 

The plummeting admissions rates (now below 5% at top schools) align with the waning importance of standardized tests and may suggest many colleges and universities still need to fulfill their goal of expanding inclusivity in the admissions process. 

Does minimizing the stakes for standardized testing address the high barriers to entry, or does it redistribute the burden from studying for SATs to studying for APs?

Students in marginalized communities may be adversely affected by standardized testing requirements. But does minimizing the stakes for testing address the high barriers to entry, or does it redistribute the burden from studying for SATs to studying for APs?

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