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The Changing Importance of Standardized Tests

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

The last few weeks saw Columbia University and the College of William and Mary make standardized tests ‘optional’ for an indefinite period.

This news follows the NCAA's elimination of standardized test requirements for athletes and continued releases from colleges across the country extending test optional practices . Because of this, we thought it would be a good time to revisit the subject of standardized tests and their importance, which we believe is more complex than people think.

The reality is that only 4% of colleges that use the Common Application require standardized tests and that over 1600 schools (and the vast majority of schools that people can name) are test ‘optional’ and considered likely to extend their test optional policies if they have not already done so. There are many ways schools have benefited from having ‘optional’ policies over the past few years and the language around test optional policy is pretty convincing on most college websites.

For many parents and students, what they are told by their college admissions officer and what they see about test optional policies when visiting college websites tends to be very comforting. The language from the Brown University and Wesleyan University websites are good examples of this.

Brown- "Students who do not submit test scores should be assured that they will not be disadvantaged in our admission process, and we will look to other aspects of the application, from course grades and curricular rigor to insight from counselors and teachers, to assess academic preparation."

Wesleyan-'"Whether or not students share standardized test results, the admission committee will faithfully fulfill its commitments to carefully considering complete applications in their respective contexts and making the most informed decisions possible."

In addition to being highly selective schools as it relates to the number of applicants they accept, both Brown and Wesleyan are well known for their open curriculum. Open curriculum is a policy that allows students to take only the courses they are interested in and focus on their specific majors without much in the way of core requirements. With their flexible curriculums, both Brown and Wesleyan would seem to be types of schools that would look beyond standardized tests and focus on the breadth of the applicant’s experience. That said, their data is less than convincing with the vast majority of the most recent classes of both schools ( 2022-23 data) being made up of students who submitted standardized test results…81% in the case of Brown and 76% in the case of Wesleyan.

The truth is that Brown and Wesleyan do look at multiple parts of the application and it is fair to say that students who have high test scores often have other attractive characteristics. Yet, it would seem that submitting scores at both schools is a potential advantage and certainly something applicants should think seriously about doing.

While they admittedly have a potential bias Compass Education Group, a tutoring company, assembled data last year showing test optional schools like Amherst, Davidson, Emory, Notre Dame and Boston College at least twice as likely to accept students who had submitted test scores versus those that had not.

Some families who are aware of the above-mentioned data have a different but no less serious potential problem. Their problem is the aggressive pursuit of standardized test results and taking tests repeatedly with the belief that good results are an even bigger boost to candidates than they were a few years ago because many of their peers do not submit them. Unfortunately, despite the promises of test prep services there is no reliable data that shows significant increases in test results due to using these services. Importantly, in a world where students have limited time, adding aggressive test prep can hurt grades and extracurriculars due to less student focus. The truth is more complex than simply assuming all schools secretly value standardized tests as many excellent schools do truly seem to value them less with under 50% of their students in the most recent data releases (2022-23) submitting them. Richmond at 40%, Northeastern at 44% and Claremont McKenna at 45% stand out as examples.

In the data assembled by Compass Group, Swarthmore, Tufts, and Vanderbilt would also seem to show no favoritism to standardized test submitters.

Our belief is that the truth is somewhere in between. As more colleges have taken a holistic approach to admissions the application criteria of colleges are increasingly different. This is because schools have their own formulas and their own processes, impacted by an increasingly large number of factors that they value in very school specific ways. What this means is that while there is no general practice students can follow as it relates to test submission they can benefit by narrowing their list of target schools earlier and knowing their schools test related admissions data. Understanding the right approach to each college is how students can enhance their odds and use their time wisely during the admissions process.

The data is available for families to form a coherent strategy around standardized testing but for those that would like some help, we are available.


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