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Illustration of an admission test answer sheet, where the circled answers from a question mark
Chris Gash for Money

Masks are optional, classes over Zoom are a thing of the past, and college life looks much as it did before the pandemic — with one notable exception: Many schools have retained a Covid-era admissions change that waived the requirement for applicants to submit SAT or ACT test scores.

Advocates who say standardized tests create an unfair barrier for disadvantaged students are happy with the change, and some students see it as an opportunity to apply to more competitive schools than they would otherwise consider. But a patchwork of rules, new jargon and questions about merit aid make navigating this new landscape daunting for families.

More than 1,830 four-year institutions made testing optional for Fall 2022 admissions, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a research and advocacy group also known as FairTest that supports eliminating admission testing mandates. At many schools, the change is temporary, with relaxed requirements remaining for the next year or two.

Other institutions have said their policy change will be permanent. This includes some of the nation’s largest: Last year, the University of California announced a “test-blind” admissions policy, and California State University followed suit in March. Together, these two systems educate more than three-quarters of a million students, making their decisions among the most influential on the topic.

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, says that momentum to dump standardized tests had been building prior to Covid-19, but the pandemic accelerated the trend when colleges and universities waived test requirements en masse in 2020.

“The pandemic was a tremendous catalyst,” he says. “It was a natural experiment.”

But before everyone throws out their No. 2 pencils, there are a few caveats to keep in mind.

Confusion leads to “better safe than sorry” approach

There is confusion about the degree to which schools have — or have not — communicated their policies to prospective students, and even around the vocabulary itself. The difference between test-optional and test-blind, for instance, is not just a distinction of semantics.

If a student applies to a test-optional school but submits scores anyway, the school might take that data into consideration — although students that do not submit scores will not be penalized. Test-blind admission, on the other hand, doesn’t factor scores into applicant evaluations even when results are available.

“One of the first things we noticed about students and families is they weren't sure how to interpret what colleges were saying about test-optional admission,” says David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “There's going to need to be a lot of good, clear communication about what test-optional means at each institution.”

Hawkins says a lot of families remain skeptical that skipping what was, for previous generations, a college-application rite of passage won’t carry consequences in the future. “Many students and families didn't, frankly, believe that not submitting an application was OK,” he says.

This worry isn’t entirely unfounded. Some schools, even if they don’t require an SAT or ACT score for admission, might require students who wish to enroll in business or STEM programs to provide test results. And some institutions, as well as state educational systems, still use standardized test scores when distributing merit-based scholarship aid. With college costs so high, this means standardized tests will remain a key part of the conversation around college attainment.

“Getting into school is one thing, but if you can't pay for it, it's meaningless,” Schaeffer says.

Some schools, like Baylor University, have explicitly said tests won’t be required for either admissions or merit aid. Others, like Oklahoma State University, have clearly spelled out on its freshman admissions webpage that scores are required for students who want to be considered for scholarships. But a large number of colleges and universities don’t say anything at all, or have the information buried on a webpage that’s hard for families to find.

“Even in the world of test optional, it’s hard to convince families who are chasing merit not to have their student test,” says Debbie Schwartz, founder of Road2College and administrator of the Facebook group Paying For College 101.

“I’m seeing a lot of families decide their student should take the test to see how they do because they feel their test score may open up more options to receive higher merit awards and from a wider group of schools,” she says.

How we got here: Blame the pandemic

Most institutions and systems that went test-optional in 2020 did so out of concern that a lack of access to testing during the initial phase of the pandemic would place countless students at a disadvantage. But wide variations in how state and local governments responded to Covid-19 also contributed to different schools adopting different approaches.

John Barnhill, associate vice president for enrollment management at Florida State University, which did not suspend its testing requirement, says programs that let students take standardized tests at school and a relatively quick return to in-person activities meant that few students missed critical test-taking opportunities.

“We had already tested most of our students when the lockdowns were occurring,” he says. “The next year, when people were still closed, we were wide open and the access to testing in Florida was probably better than it was in other parts of the country.”

Provided that the pandemic continues to recede, “I do think you’ll see a number of schools go back gradually to requiring the test,” predicts Robert Massa, an adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Some already have. Stu Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained in a March blog post why the school was reverting to its pre-Covid requirements. Namely, MIT has rigorous math requirements for all students. Standardized test scores, especially in math, help ensure that students who are accepted don’t wind up in over their heads.

“The MIT decision will make it easier for some schools to go back into requiring tests,” Massa says.

The only certainty: More uncertainty

The piecemeal approach taken by educational institutions, along with the lingering doubts that higher education can just go cold turkey when it comes to tests, have many college admissions experts predicting that standardized tests aren’t going anywhere — at least not in the near future.

“In general, our advice is because test-optional is so confusing, we tell all our students to take the standardized tests,” says Venkates Swaminathan, founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, an admissions-counseling firm based in California.

This seems to be the default position for many families.

“One of the main things we learned is that most students still submitted scores,” says Chris Reed, executive director of admissions at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, which extended its test-optional policy until at least spring of 2023.

“Generally speaking, students with plans on attending college still see taking the SAT or ACT as part of those plans. We’ll see if that shifts in the coming years,” he says.

Many seem to think a shift is likely, if not inevitable.

“Certainly, a lot more schools will be test-optional three years from now than three years ago. No question about that,” Massa says.

One indication? While most students still do take standardized tests, their numbers are falling already. The College Board, which administers the SAT, says that 1.5 million students in the high school class of 2021 took the SAT, compared to 2.2 million from the class of 2020. Results are similar for the ACT: Between those same two graduating classes, the number of students taking the ACT fell by 375,000.

But one viewpoint both camps agree on is that changing the outlook of millions of families with college-bound high school kids isn’t going to happen overnight.

“Maybe it'll take a generation to change perspective,” Schaeffer says.

Do tests limit access? Advocates say barriers still exist

Danny Tejada, lead counselor at consulting firm We Go To College, who works in St. Louis, says that while recent in-school initiatives have made it easier for low-income kids to take the test itself, the playing field is still unequal — which is why he wants to see admissions offices dispense with the use of testing as a yardstick for student performance.

“The access is there for a lot of students in terms of actually taking the exam. Where the issue lies is having the funding for preparation for those exams,” he says. “Test-optional has given students who normally don't have the access to be able to afford tutoring for the testing the opportunity to get into selective institutions.”

People like Tejada who work in the field of helping kids get into and pay for college say jettisoning tests eliminates a big source of stress for students and emboldens them to apply to more selective schools.

For Thalia Vincent, an 18-year-old high school senior in St. Louis, having the option of withholding her ACT score when she applied to schools gave her the confidence to aim higher — a gamble that paid off when she was accepted to Emory University in Atlanta.

“It felt really good. I felt like, in some cases, it definitely helped out my application a lot more,” says Vincent, a first-generation college student.

Rather than feeling like she had been reduced to a number, Vincent says she took the opportunity in her application to tell admissions officers more about herself: How she holds down two part-time jobs to help out with bills at home, and how she juggles that plus her academic workload, along with taking care of her younger siblings and participating in a plethora of scholarly, musical and civic extracurricular activities.

“I feel like it adds an extra layer of perspective,” Vincent says.

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