A changing game: standardized testing and college admissions


Illustration by Kupu Sumi

Nearly 100 years ago, the College Board birthed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, more commonly referred to as the SAT, and 33 years later, the American College Test (ACT) emerged. These lengthy tests have gone through numerous variations over the years, but their purpose has remained the same: to standardize the college admission process. The first SAT in 1926 was administered to approximately 8,000 students and encompassed nine subsections: Arithmetical Problems, Number Series, Definitions, Classification, Artificial Language, Antonyms, Analogies, Logical Inference and Paragraph Reasoning. Today, the SAT features four mandatory subtests: Reading, Writing, Math (No Calculator) and Math (No Calculator), contrasting slightly with the ACT which contains four required subtests as well: English, Math, Reading and Science. Over 2 million students in the class of 2019 took the SAT and nearly 1.8 million completed the ACT.

It is important to note that the creator of the original SAT, Carl Brigham, was an advocate for racial superiority, and he crafted the SAT with the intent of supporting his belief that white people were intellectually superior to other races. Today, the SAT and ACT are still used as weapons in perpetuating racial inequity, as each test maintains stark racial differences in mean scores. For example, a 2020 College Board Report reflected that only seven percent of Black students scored greater than 600 on the math section of their SAT, whereas approximately 31 percent of white students received this score. One reason behind this discrepancy is the cost of the tests. Although the SAT or ACT is administered for free at every school during school hours in over 20 states, many students will end up taking either test more than once, which can become expensive. The SAT is priced at $55 per test and the ACT at $60. Additionally, many students seek out tutors in order to help improve their score, which on average, charge around $70 an hour. Essentially, a standardized test score is not an accurate measure of a student’s intelligence, but it is more frequently a reference as to how much money and time they could pour into test preparation and test-taking.

“I love talking about the testing, because I actually hate standardized testing, and I’m so against it. Especially for college, I think there’s so much pressure on our generation to do well on standardized testing and to devote all [of] this money into tutors just so you can go to a good college,” senior Taryn Robinson discloses. “Let me tell you right now, I took the SAT, and I don’t think I’m a very good test taker in general. In school, I tend to do better on projects and classwork instead of tests; I’m just not a very good test taker. Then, when it actually came to college, I ended up only taking the SAT once [through ETHS], and then I took it again just to see if I can do a little better, [and] I didn’t … I applied to all [of] my schools test-optional, and I got into Duke without submitting any scores, which says a lot.”  

The “test-optional” policy that Robinson refers to means students have the choice as to whether they want to submit their SAT or ACT score with their application. When the pandemic hit, the ability to administer tests was brutally impacted, which forced many schools to adopt this form of admissions. According to College and Career Coordinator Beth Arey, a significant role of test-optional schools pre-pandemic was to serve as a strategic school option for students who struggle with standardized testing. However, as more schools made the switch to be test-optional, the choice of whether or not to submit test scores became a more ubiquitous decision across students. 

“Traditionally, we used test-optional [schools for] a student who was clearly not a strong test taker, but they would be achieving in other ways and had other successes … We would search specifically for test-optional schools [for those students to apply to],” Arey expresses. “Now, with the landscape of so many schools saying [they’re] going to be test optional, it made who chose to send a score and who didn’t choose to send a score a little bit more complicated … There’s the middle 50 percent [of mean SAT/ACT scores at an institution], and then if you’re above that, you should send your score, because it would be an asset [to your application] … If you were just in the average, so the middle range of test scores for that college, then don’t bother sending it, because then you would be evaluated on a score that was just [considered to be] okay.”

Standardized testing has received a spectrum of praise and criticism, and likewise many have expressed ambivalence about test-optional policies. 

“With test-optional, it’s an interesting thing, because a lot of schools say they don’t look at testing at all, but I think it’s hard to compare a student who has submitted test scores versus a student who hasn’t submitted test scores,” senior Braden Weiss shares. “I think one of the things with being test optional is that it’s good that it allows kids to submit [their score] if they want to and if they feel like it would strengthen their application, but then it also allows [for students to not submit a score] if people didn’t have a chance to take the tests or weren’t happy with their scores. I think there [are] benefits and downsides to [schools being test-optional].”

In addition to test-optional institutions maintaining benefits for students, there may be upsides for the colleges as well.

“The way that college admission works [is] they recruit students, and they get students to apply, and then they deny them; denying [more students] then makes [the colleges] appear to be more prestigious,” Arey explains. “The test optional policy has had more students apply to particular colleges, because they’re not being turned away by not having the test score that would normally be expected, so it has helped colleges in ways that are seemingly unscrupulous … [By getting more students to apply, institutions are] perceived to be more selective and rise in their rankings. From sort of a back room, enrollment management piece, I don’t think test-optional [admissions are] going to go away.”

The test-optional policy is undoubtedly a tool to increase application rates and therefore, can be used to make a school appear as more prestigious. A Common App estimation suggested that the number of applicants to highly selective universities increased by 17 percent this year, consequently lowering the acceptance rates of these institutions. For years, SAT and ACT scores were the gold standard for comparing students on an international scale, but as these schools begin placing less of an emphasis on standardized testing through their test-optional admissions, it is crucial for students to recognize the other factors that may be considered assets in regards to their application. 

“You should consider everything else on your resume. From what I’ve heard from college admissions counselors is that [colleges] like seeing standardized test scores, because that’s the only thing that they can measure upon everyone who applies. Everyone will take the exact same SAT [or ACT], and that’s the only thing that can really compare you with against other people,” senior Maya Wallace elaborates. “But if you have really strong extracurriculars, [and] if you show that you have a strong work ethic through your coursework and your grades and have essays and recommendations, that all plays a bigger factor than a test score in my opinion. Plus, there’s always room for academic growth, and everyone isn’t a strong test taker. I think, if you’re solid in your resume, you don’t really need your test scores, but then if you are lacking in some areas, your test scores can help to bring up your level of being a strong advocate.”

Essentially, the role of standardized testing is shifting, and it is crucial for students to note that a strong test score is not necessary for acceptance into a selective institution. Furthermore, due to the complexities of education and testing, a test score is incapable of emulating a student’s intellectual adequacy.  

“The traits that a student carries into the test, whether that has anything to do with anxiety of test taking or just the experience in general [and] what the test leads to and what its implications are can really inhibit the performance of a student,” Arey notes. “That doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent; they are just wired differently in how they approach a stressful situation, and I don’t think that’s a fair evaluation of a student—to put them in a stressful environment and then equate that to intelligence somehow.”