Congratulations. You’re Test-optional. Now What?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were experiencing a wave of colleges and universities going test-optional for freshman admission. And with societal change in California, and all the Ivy League institutions deciding they can make admissions decisions without the benefit of an SAT or ACT score (at least for one year), the wave has become a tsunami. (In fact, I’ve suggested that once Harvard announced, no one should make actual, official announcements about going test-optional. It’s no longer news-worthy.)

But if you think the work is over, I have some bad news for you: It’s just beginning. You have a lot of challenges ahead, both short term (when people are perhaps likely to be more charitable) and long-term, should you decide to propose making the change permanent. Having gone through two conversions to test-optional, I offer a summary of a few future challenges, to which I don’t have any clear solutions. [As an aside, my blog posts here usually take about 45 minutes to write; this one has been in edit mode for over two weeks, and as I edited the prior sentence, I suddenly realized why. I’m not used to not having an opinion about how to solve these impending problems.]

If this were a traditional year, it would be fairly easy: You’d do normal review for students with tests, and do a slightly modified version for students without. In the end, you’d probably recognize that the crutch of the SAT you’ve come to rely on is not as important as you thought it was, and after a while you’ll wonder whether you really need them for any applicants. In a few years, you’d do your research and find–like everyone has–that there are no differences between students with test scores and those without that aren’t explained by other factors.

In case you hadn’t noticed, 2020 is not a traditional year. Just deciding whether your should admit, in the case of most institutions where there is room for more, and admissions is largely a question of whether the student can succeed; or deciding whom to admit, in the case of those 75 colleges where spots are tightly constrained and the number of well-qualified applicants greatly exceeds availability, is going to be challenging.

You won’t have test scores for most students, in all probability. It’s possible only a tiny fraction of students will submit them. But you won’t really have grades to speak of, either: In spring 2020, some school districts moved to a pass/fail policy for spring of 2020. Some gave everyone a grade of “A.” Some gave students the choice of pass/fail or a traditional letter grade. It’s now looking like fall 2020 could end up in much the same way as spring.

But even if we had traditional grades for everyone, do we think the learning from a Zoom class is the same thing as in a traditional class? Even fans of Zoom classes will have to agree we’ll see different results based just on instructional modality, than we would have if life had not been disrupted.

What about those students who took APs as juniors? They got to test, correct? Technically, yes, but even though the results of the AP exam are graded on the same 5-point scale, that doesn’t mean a 5 on the old test is the same as a 5 on the new test, as pointed out by Ileana Rodriguez, former VP for the Midwestern Region at College Board:

Trying to decide whether test optional has worked for you will be a whole other problem we need to think about and solve. In two years when you try to do some research on whether test optional is a good approach, you’re going to run into some roadblocks, too. All these factors–Grades that can’t be compared to previous cycles, AP scores that might not be reliable, the unmeasured non-cognitive things like stress factors as a result of the pandemic that include but are not limited to cabin fever, Zoom fatigue, missed mortgage payments, loss of jobs, or academic performance that suffers for no other reason than a lack of reliable, high-speed internet–will affect student performance, and your ability to predict it using an application.

How will you design your research? How will you know whether test-optional has worked? These are questions that you should be talking about now, not in a year, and certainly not in two years.

How will you respond to people who are test advocates who point to this data point or that tidbit of information that supports the return to a testing requirement, or maybe even a new emphasis on tests?

Do you trust the years of research? Do you take an intuitive approach when you argue against the use of tests? Do we just have to change the idea of college admissions as the gate keeper that only grants access to those well qualified by nature of birth?

Remember the words of Lark Park from the UC Regents, who, as quoted in a CHE article said this:

Lark Park, a regent, described her concerns with the faculty panel’s focus on the predictive value of ACT and SAT scores.

“My first reaction was, Wow, we must be really doing something wrong,” she said. “I thought higher ed was really about you take people who are there, put them in the intellectual life of the university, filled with curiosity and research opportunities, and that really ignites something in people that is motivating and life-changing whether you have a high SAT score or a low SAT score.”

“This reliance on predictive value,” she said, “is implying ‘smart in, smart out,’ and ‘smarter in, smarter out.’ That troubles me deeply.”

We’ve known for a long time that tests are not very helpful in making admissions decisions, and when you consider the tremendous costs they burden us with, it is clear they’re not worth it. But in the coming years, there is a real possibility that the tools we’ve used to demonstrate this might be used to make the case against test optional. I can think of a couple of Testing Agencies that are already probably getting ready to make this case. If they succeed, that would be a shame. Literally.

Remember this: Pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 are completely different worlds when it comes to our industry and our profession, and applying the rules of one to the other probably isn’t prudent. And yet, when faced with uncertainty, lots of us will want to rely on the tried-and-true.

Please don’t. Expecting this year’s applicants to look like or behave like or perform like those of previous years is folly. In a world and a country that seems divided, we could use a little empathy, a little grace, and a lot of compassion. It just might work.

As I indicated earlier, this has been a difficult blogpost to write. When I struggle to put words down, I always think of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, Section V. And I don’t feel so incompetent.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

9 thoughts on “Congratulations. You’re Test-optional. Now What?

  1. Jon, your candid writing is such a breath of fresh air and hope. May we all focus on the right thing to do — not the easiest or most familiar — and change college admissions for the better once and for all.


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