Standardized Tests: The Optional Future
BY SYDNEY PASCAL '22
While students and school systems cope with the pandemic’s repercussions, colleges modified the requirement that once haunted aspiring college students: standardized testing. Although it was originally implemented as a temporary change, the test-optional system might be here to stay, leading to a relaxation in the hold standardized testing has on many high schoolers' lives. From accessibility to mental health, these changes greatly benefit many students’ admission processes and futures.
In the past, students registered for various standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, which were once crucial parts of any college application. However, during the spring of the pandemic, testing sites closed, leaving most rising seniors unable to take the assessment or scrambling to take it in the fall. The impracticality of in-person testing prompted a crucial change in college admissions—optional standardized tests. For this year's applicants, those who didn’t send scores would have their grades, extracurriculars, and essays scrutinized more than in previous years. For many students, this was an advantage, as standardized testing can be stressful and unreflective of one’s intelligence and potential. However, students whose applications might have been deemed “weaker” due to lower grades or fewer extracurriculars could benefit from high scores on standardized tests. Although this year's changes were unexpected, a world with optional testing could benefit everyone.
While standardized tests supposedly give everyone an equal opportunity to display academic excellence, they also highlight underlying inequalities. To begin with, not every student expresses their intellectual ability the same way. In school, there are many options for students to exhibit their strengths, whether it be through projects, group discussions, written analysis, or in-school tests. However, the SAT and ACT throw this notion out, expecting every student to demonstrate their talents in the same manner. Further, many argue that standardized tests as a whole are not a beneficial way to show one’s academic aptitude. With all the prep that is necessary to earn a high score, studying becomes less about the material and more about learning the ins and outs of the test. This begs the question: are standardized tests a reflection of how a student will perform in college? In actuality, it seems they reflect more on one's ability to learn how to do well on a specific style of predictable questions, as the test structure encourages a studying strategy that is irrelevant to a student’s ability to tackle future challenges. This leaves students with a weak support system or financial insecurities at a high disadvantage; though the testing fee itself is not expensive, the high prices for preparation are often inaccessible for lower-income students. Setting a test-optional standard would allow students to choose what would benefit them the most, evening the playing field for college decisions.
In addition to the disadvantages some students face, standardized tests are also problematic because of the mental toll they take on students. Students face immense pressure knowing that one test will greatly define their applications, and this toxic mindset can inhibit their performance. Moreover, the long hours of testing in a room with other anxious students exacerbates stress and hinder them from doing their best work. Some students do not function well in a high-pressure environment, which, while not necessarily crucial to their future career pursuits, could prove to be detrimental on a high-stakes test. Besides the harmful conditions, the time needed for extra studying outside many students’ grueling schedules is demanding. Setting aside time for studying also detracts from students’ ability to participate in other activities, some of which could be even more important for their futures.
While many students support a test-optional future, do colleges have a genuine interest in normalizing this alternative? Surprisingly, many colleges were already looking into the switch and were holding back because of what it might mean for their public image. Steven Syverson, a retired senior admissions official at the University of Washington at Bothell and Lawrence University, believes that “lots of colleges didn't really even need to require the SAT, as they were already admitting everyone who was admissible, but they didn't want to eliminate it as a requirement because they felt it would devalue them [the college].” For the next few years, it seems that test-optional will be offered at many colleges, and that option will continue for the schools who simply needed a push to take action on the switch. Some may argue that these changes will hurt admissions in the long run, but reducing standardized test scores’ impact simply seems to push admission officers to look more closely at the other key parts of students’ college applications. In the long run, scores may not matter at all; in fact, there may be more of a push for students to spend their extra time focusing on passions related to their future, develop life skills and gain experience that test prep can not offer.
Ultimately, it seems that optional standardized testing for all students is the most beneficial route: it curbs the inequalities that students face to prepare for tests and benefits teens’ mental health, all while diversifying how students can display their best on college applications.