In June 2020, Penn joined countless universities nationwide in a decision to make standardized testing optional for the Class of 2025. Considering that the pandemic placed financial strain on numerous households, gave rise to unforeseen health-related issues, and prevented students from accessing testing centers, universities in the United States were correct in waiving this requirement. However, a number of universities — including Penn — have extended this test-optional policy for next year’s admission cycle, and others have taken this opportunity to make the SAT and ACT permanently optional. This might actually hurt students rather than help: once COVID-19 is behind us, Penn should revert to its previous mandatory testing requirement. Standardized testing should remain an integral part of the way universities evaluate applicants.
In light of this year’s admission statistics, the natural question is whether a test-optional policy actually deemphasizes college entrance tests. In this past admissions cycle, 38% of early decision Penn applicants did not submit their test scores, and of those accepted, 24% did not include them. An unprecedented number of students indeed applied without test scores, but the discrepancy between the proportion of total applicants without test scores and admitted ones implies that they were nevertheless better off submitting their scores.
For the same reason that optional essays for college applications are perceived not to be optional, there will always be a high degree of pressure to take these tests, particularly since a disproportionately small number of accepted applicants who did not submit test scores were accepted this year. Presumably, with other variables kept constant, a student who received a 1580 on the SAT would likely stand out as an applicant more than someone who did not report a score at all. Whether the admissions committee actually employed objective criteria to evaluate students without test scores this year, in the eyes of the thousands of people who applied to Penn, a test-optional policy may constitute nothing more than empty words, failing to alleviate the pressure underlying standardized tests. Had Penn truly wanted to level the playing field to address COVID-19 circumstances, a test-blind policy, which ignores test scores altogether (even if students submit them), would have been more consistent with the University’s stated goals.
Standardized testing nevertheless fulfills an indispensable role in the admissions process. Contrary to popular belief, it contributes to a more well-rounded view of an applicant: by eliminating one of the variables from the admissions equation, a test-optional policy places undue weight on the remaining considerations, such as one’s college application essays or GPA. A lower emphasis on many factors is more advantageous than a greater emphasis on a few. In other words, students have an additional opportunity to showcase their ability when standardized testing is an element of the process.
Some may contend that standardized testing itself is an inappropriate method of assessing students. For one, it aggravates income-based inequality for students from wealthier families who have access to private tutors and more test preparation material. However, with each passing year, the American education system is placing more emphasis on critical thinking rather than rote memorization. For example, after a format overhaul in 2016, the reading comprehension section of the SAT stopped asking about antiquated vocabulary, focusing more on students' abilities to analyze context clues. Moreover, The College Board announced this year that it plans to discontinue all subject tests, exams based more on content knowledge rather than critical thinking. Online resources like Khan Academy are providing students from all backgrounds with sufficient resources to adequately prepare for standardized exams. What cannot be found for free online are college application consultants who can design the most extravagant extracurricular activities or write personal statement essays for their clients. If anything, standardized testing can act as a buffer against families trying to surpass their competition with money.
COVID-19 posed a seemingly insurmountable challenge for millions of households worldwide, and a test-optional policy was among the most appropriate measures to accommodate the unforeseen circumstances. However, standardized testing still plays a major role in the college admissions process, and outside of COVID-19’s context, test-optional policies are ineffective for adequately assessing applicants. As soon as possible, standardized testing should return and be here to stay.
ANDY YOON is a rising College and Wharton sophomore from Seoul, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.