The elimination of standardized test requirement makes college admissions crazy this year

March 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

As I’ve noted here before, many colleges have either made the submission of standardized tests (SATs and ACTs) optional for applications because of the pandemic, or are contemplating forbidding the submission of test results. The situation arose because of the pandemic, for you have to take the tests in big halls crowded with people. Nevertheless, many students were able to take the tests anyway.

Many colleges are also contemplating making the optionality permanent, so that students no longer have to take the Big Two standardized tests at all. My own view is that the tests will eventually no longer even be used, the reason being that their use has highlighted racial disparities in outcomes, and, as Ibram Kendi maintains (and many believe), these disparities are the result not just of racism, but continuing structural racism.

The Wall Street Journal article below is the first I’ve seen that discusses the results of making tests optional. Click on the screen shot to read it, though it may be paywalled.  This seems to be from the paper’s “news” section, which I’m told is not slanted rightward at the WSJ, though editorials are. (But of course the NYT is slanted left.) I say this only because some readers judge an article by its source, not its contents.

The authors of this piece are Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin, and at the link you can also listen to the article.

The clearest result is that the test-optional system has hugely increased the number of applicants, but mainly at “prestige” schools. The only reason I can give why that happened is that students think they stand a higher chance of getting in without test results. That tells you something, I suspect, but what?

Excerpts from the article are indented. First, the glut:

Harvard University received more than 57,000 freshman applications for next fall’s entering class, a 42% year-over-year jump. Yale, Columbia and Stanford universities were so overwhelmed they also pushed back the date to announce admission decisions. The University of Southern California’s applications pool beat the prior record by 7%. And New York University topped 100,000 applications, up 17% from last year.

This increase, documented for “highly selective schools” in the first figure below, is not because universities have expanded their class sizes.

The uptick in applications is correlated with the prestige and selectivity of the university—qualities that are themselves correlated.

Some readers have applauded the demise of required SATs and ACTs, saying that they measure only family wealth (money spent on quality education and test tutorials) and not accomplishment or learning, but that’s not completely true. And at least the test results correlate strongly with success in college and afterward (this being America, “success” is measured by income).

This problem brings up a second one: how can colleges deal with this increase in applications, especially because one criterion that was important—standardized tests—are now gone? And, to my surprise, most of the admissions people seem to regret the absence of these tests. A few quotes:

“Kids are sending out more applications out of nervousness, out of anxiety, just saying, ‘Let’s see what happens,’ ” said Cynthia Rivera, who oversees counseling at New Canaan High School in Connecticut. Seniors there applied to an average of 10 schools this year, up from eight last year.

Greg Roberts, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Virginia, is concerned about whether the soaring numbers affect his team’s ability to stay focused while reviewing applications. Applications there rose by nearly 17% this year; 43% didn’t include standardized test scores.

“The fear is that your team gets exhausted and beaten up reading so many applications all hours of the day for six months, and the end goal is a number and not a person,” Mr. Roberts said. “Can colleges and universities continue to read in a way that allows them to make the best, most thoughtful decisions when they’re dealing with such a high volume? I don’t know the answer to that.”


The pandemic “is calling on us to walk the talk,” when it comes to thinking more broadly about assessing applicants, said Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth saw a 33% rise in applications after it waived standardized test scores this year.

Mr. Coffin says he is conflicted about going test-optional. Before the pandemic Dartmouth considered standardized test scores to be among the most important information alongside grade point average, essays and class rank. Seeing strong scores helps his team feel more confident that admitted students could cut it at the Ivy League institution. “It becomes a moral question,” he said. “I don’t want to admit someone who is going to struggle.”


Some veterans in the field are skeptical that waiving standardized tests alone will have a big impact. Sam Bigelow, director of college counseling at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., said some underrepresented students may get a boost without borderline test scores holding them back.

“But I don’t think it’s tipping the scale on access and equity,” he said. “More than anything else it’s just making these applicant pools disturbingly big. It’s by and large just making more kids for them to reject.”

Grade point averages (GPAs), which are another critical number, aren’t that useful this year when many high schools have gone to a pass-fail system. This makes a shambles of “holistic evaluations” which are intended to give a “whole person” assessment, but are highly subjective, especially without GPAs or test scores:

Admissions officers at top-ranked colleges and universities have long boasted of conducting a holistic review of applicants, putting academic qualifications into context. Did a teen take the hardest courses offered at her high school, or pull straight-A’s with less-challenging classes? Did a candidate maintain a 3.9 GPA with few distractions, or while working part time at the drive-through, taking care of an ailing parent and playing varsity soccer?

And who deserves priority for a coveted spot: the one who thrived on an easier path, or the one who did all right despite having a more hardscrabble background?

The result of this glut is that students are submitting test scores only to less selective schools, presumably because they don’t think their scores would help them. Again, what does this mean?

Amal Sayed from Dearborn Heights, Mich., submitted applications to 21 schools this fall and winter, receiving fee waivers through a program geared to low-income students seeking admission to selective schools.

An academic high achiever, Ms. Sayed is enrolled in a prestigious STEM program that draws top students from the city’s three public high schools. She said she has a 4.2 GPA and ranks in the top 2% of her class. But her SAT test, which she finally took in October after two cancellations, was a disappointment. She said she scored below her target of 1400, which itself would have placed her below the 25th percentile for the current first-year class at Stanford University, one of her targets.

So she pivoted, submitting her SAT score only to safety schools where she would measure up well, and omitting it for the others. Her final list included local options like Wayne State University and the University of Michigan—to which she has already been admitted—as well as Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It was a lot easier to apply to some of those higher-reach schools” without the score, said Ms. Sayed. “It didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage. Why not just shoot my shot?”

Were I Ms. Sayed, I wouldn’t have gone public with this in the pages of the Wall Street Journal!

I still think the test scores give admissions officers useful information about the applicant. You can say that they’re not correlated with smarts or with learning, and that they simply index familial wealth, but presumably admissions officers would be cognizant of that were it true. And there’s no denying that the test scores are highly correlated with how well students do in college.  As the Dean of Admissions at Dartmouth said “I don’t want to admit someone who’s going to struggle.”

39 thoughts on “The elimination of standardized test requirement makes college admissions crazy this year

  1. I’m wondering what test optionality actually means. If you have one slot with two candidates, identical in every way except one has test scores, who gets admitted? Do you flip a coin?

    1. Who gets in? The minority student, of course. Let’s not pretend to not see this for what it is.

      1. That’s not the question I posed. I want to know what happens if they are identical in every way except having submitted scores.

        1. In principle, another test should be used. Some other assessment competence or something…


          The bar gets moved – up or down – either both applicants are accepted, ir both applicants are rejected.

          I think that is clear cut. In theory.

          1. But that just waves away the issue. “Identical in every way” precludes “some other assessment”, because in the hypothetical situation these are also identical.

            1. Which tests can claim 100 % completeness? Tests are sampling a space for some indicators. These academic tests are, I think, only so rigorous in the most rigorous of cases.

              More data would eventually show a discrepancy.

              This is an interesting corner case to consider, but I don’t think it is generally applicable… but then, maybe a tie happens more often than not.

              1. I really do not follow – perhaps for good reason. I thought my suggestions were easy to refute and impersonal – now you are asking – in classic GBJames style – if I ever heard of a thought experiment.

              2. Because I posed a thought experiment, which can’t be resolved by changing the rules of the experiment. The point is to question whether the concept of “optional” is actually meaningful in this matter. If it truly doesn’t make a difference, then there’s no reason to submit test scores. Which makes it as meaningful an option as whether the student had banana or blueberries with breakfast. If they are willing to accept test scores, optionally, it means that not submitting them counts against you. The implication is that non-submittal is a synonym for “bad scores”.

              3. Ahh, alright alright, I thought that was it. And that assumed there were no additional tests, no adjustments – goal post moving – post-test. Sure.

  2. Why not just shoot my shot?

    It’s sort of a tragedy of the commons/prisoner’s dilemma problem, isn’t it? If you submit 21 applications and don’t include test scores, then your chances of finding a “good fit” with a school you like are greatly increased. However, if everyone does that, applications systems quickly get overwhelmed in terms of both numbers of applicants and difficulty of assessment, and may not make the best decisions for anyone (school or applicant).

    Back in the stone age, I think I applied to 4 schools. A reach, two good choices, and a safety. Got back pretty much exactly what would be predicted – reach rejected me, safety accepted me, and the good choices split (one acceptance, one wait list).

    Some readers have applauded the demise of required SATs and ACTs, saying that they measure only family wealth (money spent on quality education and test tutorials) and not accomplishment or learning, but that’s not completely true. And at least the test results correlate strongly with success in college and afterward (this being America, “success” is measured by income).

    I’d be happy with measuring “success” in college as graduation with a degree in 5 years. While the students and parents might be interested in how much money graduates make on average, that seems to me a criteria very much dependent on the student’s choice of major, their decisions after graduation, etc. IOW, things which are not the school’s problem, and not necessarily related to whether they successfully educated the kid to the level promised in the subject chosen.

    Re: SAT measuring wealth. I think that’s always going to be true to some extent, because wealthy people can throw more resources at educating their kids. What we should focus on is how to make it more egalitarian, not focus on whether it’s perfectly egalitarian. This comment is based on some earlier back and forth on the subject with another poster, but one suggestion I’d make is for the College Board to release, free of charge, past tests and answer keys. So that the ability to practice taking the test is not dependent on wealth. But I don’t keep up with the subject, so maybe they already do that (I know they used to…again, back in the stone age…)

    1. As a complete non-expert on testing and college entry evaluations, I think the best thing to do is eliminate practice tests and test prepping altogether for the SAT and similar evaluation tests. Except perhaps for programs in class in high school that don’t cost anything for the students or their families. Test prep classes always struck me as scams and as contrary to the purpose of an evaluation test like the SAT.

      1. Practicing and studying for a test are good habits; we don’t want to ban that or make that harder, IMO. We want to make it something everyone can access equally.

        Your approach is going to result in wealthy kids having a huge advantage. It’s simple enough for a private company to pay someone to take the test, then screenshot/copy all the questions, then offer a prep course where they use them as exclusive content. If copyright’s an issue, they can simply change the numbers in the math tests and do slight alterations like that.

        Which, I think, is sort of what happens now, only instead of copying questions as you take the test, they simply come to some sort of licensing/copyright agreement with College Board on them.

        Test prep classes always struck me as scams and as contrary to the purpose of an evaluation test like the SAT.

        It’s scammy if they’ve captured the past test material for exclusive use. If the material is available to everyone, I don’t have much a problem with a test that is based in part on students’ ability to study for it.

        I rented a book of old tests from the library, dropped my nickels into a photocopy machine to get some blank answer keys, and off I went. It’s given on the computer now so obviously that’s not an option, but it would be simple enough to offer downloadable free app which has SATs from years back…IF College Board wanted to do that.

    2. The real irony here is that the SAT was developed to purposefully level the playing field for poor and minority students by judging everyone by the same standard.

  3. In the UK this year, owing to the pandemic, high-school students won’t take exams. Instead the schools will just estimate the exam grades they would have got.

    So, every school, wanting to do its best for their students, will err on the side of generosity by being optimistic and adding a grade. But then the school will realise that, every other school will also add a grade, so, in order to correct for that, and do the best for their own students, they need to add two grades. At which point the school will realise that, since every other school will be thinking like this, and likely adding two grades, they need to . . .

    And then the universities will have to try to deal with this.

  4. Standardized tests are by far the least biased way to compare people from different schools. A 1400 SAT is the same in San Francisco, Atlanta and Little Rock. They are not perfect but there is no other single datum with the same impact. If you got a 460 on the math SAT and 2 on the AP Physics, you should not be studying physics at MIT even if you have a 4.0 GPA.

    SAT scores can also be used to judge schools. My daughter wanted to play soccer at good D2 or D3 engineering school. We used SAT score to get a quick insight into their academics. It helped her focus on half a dozen schools.

  5. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but I come from a blue collar family in a factory town – we were reasonably comfortable because both of my parents worked (as did I and my siblings when old enough), but quite far from wealthy. I took no test prep courses, and went to a high school with a 4% college graduation level, but because of my test scores (SAT and ACT) in addition, obviously, to grades and extracurriculars, I got into the school I wanted and got a scholarship. So they don’t ALWAYS have anything to do with wealth, at least. I’m a bit biased and probably defensive about it, but at least the tests give one a uniform measure that’s not curved locally and not skewed by thoroughly subjective admissions evaluations.

    1. I knew of a girl who grew up in a trailer park but went on to an excellent university on a full ride scholarship (in math I think) because she was just that damn intelligent and studious. Another young man, in the same trailer park, but later upgraded to a small house, got a full ride to a very good university for chemistry. Grades plus test scores plus hard work will open doors for you even if you’re poor, or at least they used to. How are poor kids supposed to distinguish themselves otherwise?

      Granted, all of this is foreign to me. I took the ACT, my parents forced me too and I didn’t study or have tutors, I guess I scored about average, I can’t recall. I never dreamed about the Ivy leagues or even good state schools. I assumed I wasn’t good enough so I took whatever was cheap and close by. Community colleges and a smaller state school was fine for me. I probably would have been overwhelmed otherwise, emotionally if not intellectually.

      1. I agree with you: How ARE poor kids supposed to distinguish themselves otherwise? Mind you, I don’t know anymore how much better an Ivy League education is than any other anymore, given the wokeness of the Ivy League and the like…but that’s a bias on my part, I guess. I’m sure it’s still true that a degree from a high end university correlates with higher-paying job prospects, all other things being equal.

        1. How ARE poor kids supposed to distinguish themselves otherwise?

          Well they’re not, that’s the point! Group identity is what matters, not individual merit. After all, kids are all blank slates.

        2. How ARE poor kids supposed to distinguish themselves otherwise?

          Zip code, I suppose.

          That’s intended as both a serious answer (getting students from different countries and localities so your students are exposed to many different perspectives is a reasonable goal) and a tongue-in-cheek one (i.e. zip code in itself is not academically relevant, but often substitutes for race)

          Though the woke answer would likely be “race”…but not if you’re Asian. Or Jewish.

        3. “How ARE poor kids supposed to distinguish themselves otherwise?”

          Grades I suppose. But then, it could be plausibly argued that some high schools are much less rigorous than others.

          So yeah, if Amber from the trailer park gets a 4.0 GPA at her local decrepit public high school, but Connor gets a 4.0 from Precious Prep Academy, then it could be argued that Connor had a more rigorous education and that therefore these GPAs do not reflect equivalent levels of knowledge.

          However, if Amber gets a 35 on her ACT, and Connor gets a 25 on THE EXACT SAME TEST, then it’s hard to argue that Amber has less ability than Connor with regard to what the test measures, despite the higher quality of his schooling.

          The only way around this is to argue that the ACT or SAT measures very little regarding academic talent and readiness for college-level work. But I don’t think that’s the case. And even if the tests aren’t perfect, as you say, what are the alternative measures that the poor kids can use to get noticed?

    2. Exactly. I’d add that if money could buy high test scores, the Varsity Blues rich parents would do this, instead of seeking other schemes to get their children in prestigious university.
      Some children from rich families just have poor academic ability, others are lazy or have other interests. And on the contrary, there are academically outstanding children from low-income families.

  6. “Were I Ms. Sayed, I wouldn’t have gone public with this in the pages of the Wall Street Journal!” I’m with you. I really hope she doesn’t suffer for her candor…though you can do a LOT worse than going to the University of Michigan.

  7. If SATs/ACTs highlight racial disparities, then surely most tests reflect the same disparities. My alma mater (New College in Sarasota, FL) used a pass/fail grading system. Is that where we are headed? I hope not!

  8. Are the admissions processes for the military structurally racist? We don’t hear about that so much, so perhaps not. So it might be useful for antiracists to use that as a reference when dismantling structural racism in, as we usually hear about, academics.

    1. I expect you’re thinking of enlisted people. For academy grads, the requirement to get a letter of recommendation from ones’ Representative or Senator probably results in the wealthy having *some* advantage over the poor, though I don’t know how much. For ROTC graduates, I guess the answer to that that would depend on the school.

  9. I know the emphasis here centers on the school. The school is then the key to great success in the world, in the job you get and the pay. This is only partly true and we know it. Many people obtain their success after they get out of school and move on in whatever career it may be. I am not even sure that any of us has the same definition of success? Getting into that perfect Ivy league education is not always going to solve your problems anymore than taking the test to get there. I do recall that Lincoln had no formal education at all but a very brief period in some country school when he was small. My grandfather never made it past the eight grade at best, yet he was pretty successful by most standards.

  10. I don’t recall the exact details, but I think Oxford & Cambridge limit how many colleges you can apply to, precisely to avoid everyone trying their luck at all of them. Perhaps the elite US colleges will follow suit, to limit the numbers they must each sift through?

    I believe they also run in-person interviews, on academic subjects, as a supplement to test scores. Which sounds fairer than college essays about how you spent every summer saving the 3rd world, although anyone who believes multiple choice tests are racially biased presumably thinks this is worse.

    1. We may have a difference in terminology going on here. I assume you mean that Oxford and Cambridge limit how may colleges you can apply to within each of these universities. (How would they know if the applicant also applied to the University of Sheffield, for example.) In the US we commonly use the word “college” when referring to a university.

      So saying “I applied to three colleges” here might mean you applied to Harvard, University of Michigan, and Carthage College (a small school in Kenosha). There would simply not be a way to limit the number of college applications someone might submit, given the ability to pay all the various application fees.

      1. Used to be, each application was different. And paper-based. This put a resource limit on the number most kids were willing to fill out (though if you were rich, I guess you could pay people to fill them out). When I was in HS I was very opposed to this – it made no sense to me, when most Universities were asking for essentially all the same information. One application! Reduce the redundant workload on kids! Now I’m not so sure. A non-monetary ‘effort’ barrier to applications might actually be beneficial to all involved. Reducing number of applications sent/kid has the upside of increasing the expected acceptance rate for (most) universities.

      2. Yes to the weird terminology, and perhaps using both was confusing. But (again IIRC) applications are judged by individual UK-meaning colleges at these universities. They are each tiny, and hence could easily be swamped, but perhaps that’s why they had to find a solution earlier than these much larger institutions, US-meaning colleges — Harvard / U Mich might admit 10 to 50 times as many people. They would need to collaborate somehow if they wished to apply such limits. IIRC the UK limitation doesn’t extend to Sheffield, but less sure about Durham.

  11. Standardized tests are supposed to provide both an objective way of determining academic talent and as a predictor of academic success at the university level. To the extent that they do these things well, they should be retained.

    But if these tests are to be jettisoned for whatever reason, what will be used as the indicator of academic talent and as an indication of the ability to handle the rigors of university level academics? I suppose high school/secondary school grades provide a good indicator of these things?

    1. if these tests are to be jettisoned for whatever reason, what will be used as the indicator of academic talent and as an indication of the ability to handle the rigors of university level academics

      The substitution wokes want and Unis will claim: race and belonging to an underprivileged group.
      The substitution Unis will actually do: reputation of school attended

      All IMO, of course

  12. “The clearest result is that the test-optional system has hugely increased the number of applicants, but mainly at “prestige” schools. The only reason I can give why that happened is that students think they stand a higher chance of getting in without test results. That tells you something, I suspect, but what?”

    My guess is that so many kids think they are smart but “I’m just bad at tests.” Of course, most of those are not as smart as they think they are (or hope they are).

  13. As a young man (centuries ago, the 90s) I worked in the Japanese education system where ev-ery-thing comes down to the Big Exam (same in Korea and China where they divert air and vehicle traffic for quiet on the students’ Big Day).

    They call it “shiken jigoku” (exam hell) – and it is. It is similar to the legal bar exam or medical boards here and the end result is a reduction of subjective standards and greater equality across the board without any quotas or set asides.

    In some ways it trends towards better test takers but also kids who put in the work and are smart and it is an equalizing force.

    It has been this way “forever” (well…since 1868 anyway) there and remember between 1970 and 2010 Japan (with no natural resources and almost no space) was the second largest economy on earth. It is still a fine place to live with a better GINI (wealth equality ratio) than the US.

    Some systems work. We’re moving towards one that doesn’t.

    D.A., J.D.
    NYC (formerly of Tokyo)

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