What Test Optional Admissions means for Students

by Claire Mullen //

In 2019, nearly every college required an SAT or ACT score to apply. Yet, with Covid-19, almost all colleges, even for the 2021 application cycle, have waived the requirement. This adjustment to application requirements leveled the playing field for many students, as the SAT has consistently been criticized for underestimating college preparedness for women and people of color. 

A False Fairness

Despite underestimating the academic potential of so many students, the SAT was widely used to evaluate all students as if they were on the same level. In theory, this standardized test was an even playing field where any student could score well if they studied hard enough. However, this theory does not play out in reality. 

Additional barriers such as test preparation costs, quality of high school education, and weight of outside responsibilities all contribute to inequality in score distribution. The cumulative effect of these variables ensures that nearly every student is put at a disadvantage in some way, especially women and BIPOC communities. A 2021 study examining the disparities among students’ SAT scores found the following:

Additional barriers, such as the test preparation costs, quality of high school education, and weight of outside responsibilities all contribute to an inequality in score distribution.

  • Students with family income of $100,000 or more are more than twice as likely as students with family income under $50,000 to have combined SAT scores of 1400 to 1600. 
  • White students are three times more likely than Black or African-American students and twice as likely as Hispanic or Latino students to have combined SAT test scores of 1400 to 1600. 
  • Male students are 42% more likely to have combined SAT test scores in the 1400 to 1600 range than female students, possibly due to differences in performance on math exams.

Essentially, students that are affluent, white, and male are most likely to score well on the SAT, while everyone else is faced with one or more disadvantages. It is possible that these disparities arise from the American education system as a whole and that the SAT is merely a reflection of them. To fund an area’s public schools, the tax money of the residents is used. Consequently, high-income areas (which tend to be predominately white) have schools with better resources in comparison to schools in low-income areas.

Holistic Admissions: A Potential Solution

Colleges becoming test-optional has allowed some students to spend more time honing other aspects of their applications, such as their personal essays or extracurriculars. As a current college freshman and someone who recently went through the college application process in 2020, I feel as though the SAT should remain optional for college admissions. While I personally chose to take the SAT, it was just that: a choice. Just as students should have the option to play a sport or take advanced classes, they should also have the freedom to decide whether or not to take the SAT. A test-optional policy creates a more holistic application review process; instead of a test score being the forefront, students can choose to show which sides of themselves they want colleges to see.

As SAT testing centers in the United States have reopened, what will the chain reaction to this be? Colleges will either choose to reinstate a testing requirement or remain test-optional. Only time will tell, but I hope test-optional policies are here to stay.