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How Test Optional Policies Diminish University Authority

This February, Dartmouth and Yale announced the return of standardized testing requirements as part of their undergraduate application processes. Both institutions provided rigorous statistical analysis illustrating that standardized tests remain the single best predictor of student performance upon admission, as well as evidence that removing the standardized testing requirement, contrary to popular belief, actually led to a decrease in admissions of lesser-served student populations. Still, despite overwhelming evidence, these decisions have been met with both approval and derision as various constituencies project larger philosophical debates onto the issue of standardized testing in college admissions.

At MyGuru, our only constituency is our students. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ACT and SAT to stop holding in-person testing, changes in testing requirements for the 2020 and 2021 admissions cycles became warranted. However, it's now 2024 and these test-optional policies remain at most institutions. After four years of ambiguity, students (and their parents) are as confused as ever by these policies.

They are confused by what test-optional means.

They are confused about what test-blind means and how that makes the University of California system different.

They are confused by whether a "bad" score can hurt their application.

Most importantly they are confused about what is a good or bad score.

All of this confusion makes an inherently stressful college application process even more daunting. Furthermore, many colleges and universities add to this environment of ambiguity by leaving the decision of whether to submit a standardized test score up to teenage applicants. Analysis paralysis is a real phenomenon and probably more acutely felt by a generation that feels constantly scrutinized by social media. In its announcement, Dartmouth specifically cited that many lower-income students with competitive or better ACT or SAT results elected to not submit scores that would have benefited them because of an unwarranted belief that other applicants must have performed better in an absurdly perfect example of the subtle bigotry of lowered expectations. Leaving this important decision up to students who likely cannot rely on family or community members with college experience for advice, colleges are directly harming the vulnerable population of applicants that standardized testing opponents claim to be advocating for and allowing the loudest voices rather than the most qualified ones to dictate admissions policy.

Further exacerbating this confusion, universities are less transparent than ever about the metrics (test scores, GPAs, or otherwise) that are likely to garner acceptance. Students seeking clarity about average admitted GPAs and test scores on most university websites find it harder than ever to determine whether they are a qualified candidate, let alone how to improve their chances of getting admitted. This opacity in the name of encouraging applications causes many conscientious and timid high schoolers to assume that they aren't qualified rather than inspiring them to apply anyway.

For years, the easy thing to do has been to acquiesce to public zealotry vilifying the ACT and SAT as exemplars of classism in admissions. The data from Yale and Dartmouth (and for that matter MIT) says otherwise. We hope that more institutions will follow the lead of these institutions rather than the University of California system which went directly against the recommendation of faculty when it decided to go test blind. Brave university administrators can help applicants determine what is needed to do to improve their application by reinstating standardized testing requirements and publicizing the results of admitted students. Bold campus leaders can, and should, stand up to say that these tests exist to ensure that students are put in a position to succeed in a college suited to their abilities while simultaneously providing the most equitable opportunity for individual students to improve a college application. By abdicating this responsibility, colleges and universities have simply allowed teenagers to avoid a test - and what teen wouldn't choose to do that!?