Each spring, thousands of applicants to the College of William and Mary receive word about whether they will join the College’s incoming class that fall. While arduous, the rollout of test-optional policies at many institutions has made the college admissions process somewhat more tolerable for students in the last year. These policies allowed students to opt out of submitting ACT and SAT results, and in the short term, were wise in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many universities, including the College, have considered making test-optional policies permanent, stating that they improve accessibility and positively contribute to diversity. But is that true?
First, I fully acknowledge that standardized testing is far from a perfect gauge of a student’s academic potential. Countless studies suggest that exams like the SAT and ACT are biased in favor of white, wealthy test takers. The positive correlation between family income and SAT performance is incredibly stark; according to The Washington Post, students in families earning above $200,000 received, on average, a combined SAT score of 1,714 out 2,400. Students in families making less than $20,000 score almost 400 points lower on average than their wealthier peers, receiving an aggregate score of 1,326.
In an ideal world, standardized testing would gauge an applicant’s aptitude and their aptitude alone. Clearly, this is not the world we live in. Some families, particularly those who are white and affluent, have access to better schooling and more test preparation resources. Their children are disproportionately more likely to attend schools that offer the PSAT, an excellent (and free) opportunity for prospective college applicants to get comfortable with college entrance exams. They also have the luxury of paying for multiple test administrations if their child fails to meet his or her target score on test day, something that isn’t feasible for millions of families.
Unfortunately, I struggle to see how making standardized testing optional fixes these problems. Consider the other parts of the college application besides SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement scores: extracurricular activities, personal essays and letters of recommendation. How on earth are these application components any more equitable than standardized tests? If anything, they seem even more biased towards rich, white kids.
Being able to participate in extracurricular activities in high school is a luxury. Can a student who has to take care of his or her little siblings, work a part-time job, or who lacks transportation comfortably spend two hours after school each Thursday participating in speech and debate? I sincerely doubt it. Clubs demand time, flexibility, dues payments and transportation. As we all know, access to these resources is not equitably distributed, so it seems suspect for universities to rely more on clubs and activities as a way of gauging student potential — because we all know some students are likelier to possess these privileges than others.
The same logic applies for personal essays. There is a lucrative industry of professional “coaches” who counsel families and students through the college admissions process, and many of them specialize in giving advice for applicants’ personal statements. Some families will shell out hundreds of dollars to help their child craft the perfect essay response, and I know firsthand how deeply admissions officers value personal statements when they review applications. Here is yet another arena where white, wealthy families can manipulate the system even more effectively than they can with standardized testing, shoving resources into their child’s application until it is in pristine condition.
Setting aside these issues, test-optional policies also have contributed to explosive application growth at elite universities while simultaneously undermining the universities that have traditionally best served underrepresented groups. When many institutions announced test-optional policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the College, many prospective students completely changed their application agendas.
Applicants whose SAT or ACT results may have precluded them from even being considered for admission at schools like Harvard or UC Berkeley suddenly had a “way in” without having to submit standardized test scores. As a result, these students applied to more “reaches” — and fewer “safeties” — resulting in massive application increases for the nation’s most elite institutions. Having high application rates and a low acceptance rate is the dream of any elite institution, and fortunately for many selective schools, test-optional policies made this fantasy a reality.
On the other end of the spectrum, less-selective universities experienced sharp decreases in applications this year, and many of these universities have historically been some of the best at enrolling, matriculating and graduating minority students. The New York Times reported that the California State University system, one of the largest public college systems in the country, had to extend its application deadlines at several campuses in an attempt to attract more applicants. Sluggish application rates can be dismal for universities, foreshadowing low matriculation, dampened student life and financial drain.
This relationship is troubling. Elite, wealthy and predominantly white schools unveil test-optional policies, claiming it bolsters access for marginalized groups. Their application rates explode to the detriment of less selective institutions, which subsequently struggle to attract students and receive funding. And all throughout this process, privileged families have an even higher leg up in making sure that their child’s application is in perfect condition, ready to be admitted with or without test scores.
I know that tests are not the best representation of aptitude or capability for many students; I think I’m a much stronger essay writer than a test-taker, too. I think we need to change how we think about standardized testing, but with the goal of improving the College’s diversity in mind, we must consider other ways to make sure that we are recruiting and matriculating all types of students, not just those who can afford the luxuries inherent in varsity sports, extracurricular activities and fancy personal statements. Whether by reforming standardized testing or by adding a more rigorous “adversity index” to our applications, something must be done to prevent test-optional policies from becoming lip service to historically underrepresented students.
Ethan Brown ‘21 is an economics and government double major from Manassas, Va. He served as The Flat Hat’s 110th editor-in-chief and is involved with the American Bosnian Collaboration Project and the International Relations Club. Email Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.