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Test-Optional May Increase the Value of Attending an Elite High School

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.” – Mark Twain

In this instance, it appears that test-optional admissions is recreating the very problem that standardized tests were intended to solve in the first place.

Purpose of Standardized Exams for Admission

Without all students taking the same classes with the same teachers and the same grading scale, how can colleges accurately compare applicants to determine who is best prepared to succeed at a given institution? They can’t. Even a standardized measure is far from perfect, but it helps bridge the gap from using high school GPA to predict college outcomes.

Prior to the early 1900’s, to ensure that they were selecting students who could succeed at their institutions, elite colleges mostly just admitted students from elite high schools that they knew sent them college-ready students.

But that left out most of the country.

In 1926, the precursor to the SAT was developed in an effort to help find college-ready students across the country to break the inequitable stranglehold that elite high schools had on admission to elite colleges (p.3). Despite what the critics say, the experiment in an accessible, universal, and standardized measure has worked exceedingly well for the last century. Elite colleges are now much better able to compare and admit students from high schools that they have never heard of. Harvard, for instance, says on its admissions website that “SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades…” That’s a massive win for equity. SAT and ACT scores are the literal best predictors of success at Harvard, so Harvard doesn’t have to limit itself to only recruiting students from elite private high schools. It can look anywhere to find students with exceptional SAT and ACT scores.

Present Day

Although test-optional admissions is pitched as a means of breaking down barriers, in reality it often has the opposite effect: it might be returning us to a present day that rhymes with the past when elite colleges primarily only recruited from elite high schools.

Consider the current position of elite high schools.

It used to be that most colleges required test scores, so all students from elite high schools needed to take these exams and, for the most part, do very well on them to ensure that they gained admission into an elite college. There are still some exceptions for students of well-connected families, those recruited for ivy league sports like squash, etc who could and still can get in — even more easily now –without stellar test scores.

Now more than in decades, however, students from elite high schools do not need those stellar scores anymore. This might seem surprising, until you consider what is actually driving college decisions.

Applying test-optional from an elite high school

College admissions tests evaluate students on their readiness for a college education and the appropriate rigor for that education. They don’t do a perfect job of doing so of course. But they do a good job of doing so. Anyone who tells you otherwise is driven by ideology, not empiricism.

However, elite colleges know that a majority of students applying from elite high schools are college ready. They know those students are college-ready just from a student’s high school GPA: those elite high schools are hard, and the average student there is very well-prepared for an elite college. There is little doubt in a college’s mind about that.

So colleges likely don’t need test scores from these students to feel comfortable admitting them. And, these students tend to be full-pay students, so, even more so, colleges are incentivized to admit them: the college gets a highly-vetted, likely well-connected, and full-pay student. There is hardly a better applicant. Even if the student struggles, they have the financial means to get enough tutoring throughout college that they will likely do well and almost certainly never need to drop out (which hurts a college’s ranking via “freshman retention” metrics). Their good connections help alumni connections, which help other graduates as well, and the applicant could easily become a graduate who donates for the rest of their life. And most colleges are more cash-strapped than ever, particularly because of the drop in full-pay international students since the beginning of the pandemic, so full-pay students and donating graduates are more appealing now than ever before. We know too, ironically from a study that tries to argue in favor of test-optional admissions, that it’s the very poorest and very wealthiest families that use test-optional admissions the most (p.3). (The fact that the authors of this study said they were “surprised” that the wealthiest were using test-optional admissions in relatively large proportions further reveals that they don’t understand how test-optional admissions is actually being used and why standardized testing exists in the first place.)

Colleges’ ultimate preference then: to be able to admit these students without bringing down the average test scores of their admitted college class.

So what do they do? They tell the elite high schools to have their students not submit scores below the college’s median. Which makes perfect sense: the test scores for those students are just there to help a college have more confidence that a student is college ready because there is so much rampant grade inflation in the U.S. that a student’s grades from an unknown high school typically need more context to understand if grades are a good indication that a student can succeed at an elite college. Did you catch the key phrase there? A student’s grades from an unknown school. The elite colleges already know the elite high schools and know that grades from those schools are generally sufficient to indicate college readiness, so they don’t feel a great need to get SAT/ACT scores from these students. If a student’s SAT/ACT score is above the college’s median, then they want those scores because then they can accept the student while boosting the college’s median SAT/ACT score. But, if a student’s SAT/ACT score is below the college’s median, then they would rather the student not submit that score — because they typically want to accept the student regardless, so they would rather not have an SAT/ACT score submitted that would lower their college’s median SAT/ACT score.

Applying test-optional from an unknown high school

Most high schools are “unknown” high schools. Why? Because there are over 20,000 high schools in the U.S., not to mention that students also apply from all over the world and some were homeschooled.

With dozens of different grading systems (some of which are not what we might call grades at all but are just narratives or even actual emojis) combined with rampant grade inflation, how are colleges supposed to accurately compare applicants? They can’t. They need some standard metric that can help them understand a student’s college readiness.

The SAT and ACT were not created to help kids from elite high schools get into college. They were literally created for the opposite purpose: to help find students of college readiness from outside the bubble of typical elite high schools. The kids from elite high schools are already vetted as college ready and thus the SAT and ACT serve a lesser purpose to colleges in evaluating these applicants.

And look at that grade inflation… In 1966, 21.8% of students at 4-year BA granting universities had A-averages in high school (p.20). Now? Nearly 70%. So 60 years ago, students were getting grades across the spectrum: A, B, C, D, F. You could actually differentiate students based on their grades — but still colleges (especially elite colleges) needed more info to be able to compare applicants’ grades from different high schools. But now, the grade spectrum of students applying to those 4-year BA granting universities looks like this: mostly A’s, some B’s. Ironically, standardized tests have become much more useful now because they are not just for comparing students from different high schools that have different grading systems but are for comparing students from the same high school because most students have basically the same grades.

What’s the impact on a student from a small rural school? That student almost definitely needs test scores if they have any chance of gaining admission to an elite college. Without a standardized measure to help realize that student’s exceptional academic readiness, elite colleges will likely not admit them.

Should I submit?

Except for students with a 1530+ on the SAT or 35+, every student is wondering if they should submit their test scores to a given college.

And the answer is complex. For the vast majority of students, the answer is: submit your test scores even if your test score is between the 25th percentile and 50th percentile (so below the median) of a college’s SAT/ACT scores — and potentially even if a student’s score is slightly below the 25th percentile (so below the bottom of the college’s middle 50% range of scores).

But, as I said, it’s complex.

For students from elite high schools, the answer is: if you have good grades, then only submit your scores if you are above the college’s median SAT/ACT score (because the college likely wants to admit you anyway, so why give them pause because they don’t want to lower the college’s median SAT/ACT score?).

For students from an unknown school, the answer is: basically always submit. If you don’t submit, you’re very unlikely to get in (unless you fit some institutional priority for recruited sports, donor’s child, etc). Again, it’s complex though. The lower the college ranks, the higher proportion of its applicants are likely to get admitted and the more test-optional the school is likely to truly be because they accept most applicants. But, especially the elite colleges want more reassurance than subjective grades that a student will likely succeed at their institution. Granted, if a student from an unknown school submits scores below the 25th percentile, then they are unlikely to get admitted. But, they were unlikely to get in without submitting scores as well (again unless they meet some other institutional priority such as rare geography, athletic recruitment, or another admissions “hook”).

Effects

So what’s the overall impact?

It’s the kids from unknown high schools who don’t have extensive guidance and information who are hurt most. What are they told? Colleges are “truly test-optional.” Despite the fact that every single test-optional school gives an advantage to students submitting good test scores

Even if students from unknown high schools have exceptional academic achievement, they might not take the SAT/ACT or try as hard. Yet all students can dramatically increase their scores through practice and prep on their own — and for free. (We live in a golden era of free self-prep, via Khan Academy, YouTube, Reddit, and even professional tutors who themselves self-prepped giving out free blueprints on how to prep for free.) What do the SAT and ACT test? Grammar and rhetoric, mathematics, reading, and data analysis. And all students should be encouraged to learn these skills, not just because doing so will get them better SAT/ACT scores that will help them gain admission to colleges and receive scholarships but also because these skills help students in high school, college, and life. The students from the unknown high schools are most misled into thinking that test scores and the skills tested on these exams are not important for their current and future success.

So test-optional admissions increases the barriers to entry for students from unknown schools.

What about for students from elite schools? The barrier to entry is further lowered because these students may not need stellar test scores as much anymore. If they get stellar scores, then great: they have a good chance of getting into the most elite of the elite colleges. If they don’t but still have good grades, then they’re still likely fine, and still more fine than before when at least they still needed to get decent test scores — if they didn’t, then even elite colleges didn’t want to accept them because those elite colleges didn’t want to bring down their own institution’s average SAT/ACT score. But now, with test-optional and information directly from the elite colleges themselves, students from elite high schools know when to submit or not to submit. Test-optional only works to their advantage.

And thus test-optional admissions seems to be rhyming with the past: students from elite high schools seem to be gaining a more certain pathway to admission to the elite colleges again. Most other students (besides those who still fit institutional priorities that benefit them, such as Pell Grant students and others) are put at a relative disadvantage.

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