To me, the most fascinating revelation from the court case that for now has banned the University of California from using SAT and ACT scores in this admission cycle is how the UC schools, which had already gone “test-optional,” were evaluating applicants under a “test-optional” admissions model.¹ Without the court case, the specifics of the evaluation process would likely have remained a secret (as is the case at the vast majority of colleges).
As the case revealed, although the UC schools were “test-optional,” applicants who submitted test scores had a large – but secret – advantage. Here is an excerpt from the judge’s order:
“As counsel for UC conceded at the hearing on this matter, test results can only help, and never hurt an applicant. Put another way, the tests are treated as a plus factor and thus test-submitters are given a second opportunity for admissions consideration” (page 5).²
Although the implementation of test-optional policies at the UC schools varied, in essence students who submitted test scores were given a second chance: all students were evaluated without test scores but those who were not admitted but did submit test scores were then evaluated again in light of their test scores (and those who were not admitted in the first round and did not submit test scores were rejected without this second look).
Although from experience it has seemed clear that good test scores help students gain admittance to even test-optional colleges, the court case revealed what a massive advantage test scores can provide: a second chance at admission. Pretty astounding.
Colleges can say that “not submitting test scores will not disadvantage a student,” but they are really skating at the edge of the meaning of words. If I am racing someone and the other person gets to use a car and I have to run, they certainly have an advantage over me. Sure, the judge could say, “David, I am not disadvantaging you because I didn’t tie your legs together.” So, yes, in that sense I am not put in a worse position than I was before. But if the other person gets a car, I am certainly at a relative disadvantage to the person who gets a car. The same goes for “test optional” admissions. Sure, the admissions officers might not downgrade my application if I do not submit scores. But, by only giving students who submit scores an additional opportunity to gain admittance, I am at a relative disadvantage to those students who do submit scores.
However you feel about the SAT and ACT, I think we all want transparency. We all want to – and I think deserve to – know how we will be evaluated. Colleges claiming to be test-optional should voluntarily shed light on their admissions processes. If a college says not submitting test scores will not hurt a student, then I want them to tell me in detail how they evaluate applicants with and without test scores. If they will not do so, then I think I would rather not take my chances on such an important decision by not submitting scores.
The silver lining: Although the continued use of test scores might be disheartening for some, the alternative (which we are seeing play out at the UC schools) would be more disheartening. Now that the UC schools are at least temporarily test-blind (not able to look at SAT/ACT scores at all), students who attend rigorous high schools with less grade inflation (so their GPAs are lower) are at a massive disadvantage. A student could be a more qualified applicant but have a lower high school GPA than a less qualified applicant from a school with more grade inflation. But now the UC admissions officers — without the imperfect but more objective measures of the SAT and ACT — will have no way of knowing which applicant is better qualified (at least in the absence of AP exam scores, which are — again — imperfect but at least standardized measures). Thus, more qualified applicants from great high schools (at which high GPAs are harder to get) are now more likely to be rejected from UC schools (and from any college if it goes test-blind).
As much as we might not like preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT, there is little denying that they serve very useful purposes: they are more predictive than high school GPA for success in college, they help parents evaluate the educational quality of high schools and where to send their kids to attend, they help most exceptionally hard-working students differentiate themselves in college admissions, they help colleges reward student achievement, they help match student level of achievement to colleges with an appropriate amount of rigor, and the selectivity of colleges helps assure employers that graduates of those colleges are high-achieving. (For an extended look at the impact if test-blind admissions were broadly adopted by colleges, see here.) Thus, although the tests can be a difficult and frustrating obstacle, we are made better through the crucible of learning the necessary content and skills (grammar, fundamental mathematics, rhetorical analysis, and scientific reasoning) and by building test taking stamina (which improves our ability for concentration and prolonged focus).³
SAT and ACT scores are (very) useful. That is why colleges use them. But colleges should be open and honest about their use of them so that students and parents can make informed decisions. I am at least grateful that the UC case gave a rare, welcome, and honest glimpse into how test scores are used in “test-optional” admissions. Unsurprisingly, test scores — even at “test-optional” colleges — are highly valued and important for college admissions.