Penn should remain test-optional, permanently

Taking the SAT or ACT used to be a rite of passage for students applying to college. Then the pandemic hit, limiting test-site access and disrupting preparation. In response to these external factors, many schools shifted their admissions policies to test-optional. But this policy was already underway pre-pandemic, with 1,000 colleges adopting a test-optional approach while seeking to attract a more diverse applicant pool. Despite this trend, institutions —including Ivies BrownYale, and Dartmouth — have recently decided to reinstate the requirement for standardized test submission in a post-Covid world. 

On March 5, Penn did not follow suit. The University announced it will remain test-optional for the 2024-2025 admissions cycle, continuing to empower students with the autonomy to make an informed choice on how they prefer to present themselves as an applicant. “These tests represent only one component in our admissions process in conjunction with other academic and non-academic factors,” Penn states on its admissions website

Accordingly, Penn takes a holistic approach for admissions review. Prioritizing one mere piece of the puzzle by overemphasizing test score results only promotes a narrow definition of merit with lack of context of a student’s positionality. Penn should maintain test-optional for all future cycles. 

At Penn, median test scores have grown at consistent rates since 2017, and The Daily Pennsylvanian found that approximately 30% of the Class of 2026 did not submit test scores, an increase of 8.7% from the previous year.

Test-optional policies foster a more equitable and inclusive admissions process, acknowledging the whole student for their diverse strengths and talents they bring to the table. Additionally, it may encourage more students to apply to institutions they otherwise wouldn’t have. If a student is below average, they may fear rejection predicated on a singular test score weighing down their acceptance potential. 

Following the implementation of test-optional policies in the preceding admissions cycle, The Common App noted a 20% surge in applications from first-generation college students, individuals receiving application fee waivers, and underrepresented minorities in 2022 and into this year. A more diverse applicant pool not only heightens representation essential for equitable mobility but also ensures varied backgrounds are valued in academic discourse. 

The introduction of the ACT in 1959 and subsequent changes to the SAT have prompted a shift in perspectives regarding the role of standardized tests in promoting racial equity in higher education admissions. While the SAT has undergone revisions to align with nationwide definitions of college readiness, their use continues to be critiqued for perpetuating inequities. Despite efforts by test providers to offer free preparation resources such as Khan Academy, critics argue that these tests fail to account for systemic factors that impact test performance, such as disparities in access to quality education. 

Brown President Christine Paxson said in their findings on standard testing data, “test scores give the admissions committee a data point that can be significant in demonstrating that a student can do the academic work.” 

However, Susan Lyons, educational assessment expert and founder of Lyons Assessment Consulting said, “It’s true, it is highly predictive of success in college. Now, you can interpret that as meaning, it’s picking the best students, or you can interpret that to mean, it’s picking students who are able to successfully navigate historically racist institutions, and institutions that have overtly and in some ways covertly denied access to historically marginalized groups.”

Further, Lyons spoke with me about how both individual factors and systemic factors contribute to SAT score results, describing the test as reflective of the values of the “white dominant class” and “and the way that our society is structured that really facilitates the learning of some while hindering the learning of others.” There’s no way to distinctly disentangle which factors are due to an individual’s learning versus those that are reflective of systemic obstacles of marginalized people and communities of color.

Jayson Weingarten, former admissions officer at Penn, said that test scores are “integral” to determining who is best positioned to potentially succeed in higher education. This overlooks how the exam is catered to the systems of power Lyons outlined that are structured into our society. “Making a high stakes decision about somebody’s life on the basis of that score is sort of unwarranted because you don’t actually know how much the score doesn’t tell you,” Lyons said.

Standardized tests only provide a mere snapshot of how successfully a student has mastered that particular test’s format. I paid for tutoring for three months prior to my final SAT exam, learning formulas and tricks for the math section’s questions that I otherwise never encountered. The night before the exam, I memorized the formula cheat-sheet I made based on the tutoring I received, ultimately increasing my math section score exponentially. 

This increase would have been unattainable for me without regularly attending a tutoring program focused on decades long research into the intricacies of the test’s question patterns, and decoding quick formulas and tricks to arrive at the answers swiftly. Despite student success without tutoring, this skill set is not typically taught within the confines of a standard school curriculum. 

Some argue that test-optional policies disadvantage those who do submit their test scores and excel at the exams. In actuality, optional means just that: optional. For those submitting, it’s considered among other factors, for those not, it doesn’t penalize them either. It’s a win-win scenario in diversifying the applicant base. 

If Penn’s admissions process is committed to “making its inclusive, innovative, and impactful Ivy League education available … regardless of economic circumstances,” in a post-affirmative action era, its test-optional policy must remain, indefinitely. The SAT falls short of its intended purpose as a great equalizer. Conversely, test-optional admissions serve as a greater equalizer instead.

Freddie deBoer, author of “The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice,” finds frustration in the limitations imposed by standardized testing and the binary perception of either taking the test or abstaining from it. Instead, he proposes an alternative approach: enhancing the tests to enhance efficacy for a diverse range of students. While the SAT has initiated steps towards this goal with adaptive, entirely virtual testing, there remains scope for further refinement in the test’s content to better reflect the depth of students’ knowledge. Such modifications could offer valuable insights to classroom teachers, serving as benchmarks for their students’ learning progress.

Standardized testing should primarily be used to address educational gaps which were exacerbated in the pandemic, impeding the expected trajectories for student learning. Jessica Grose of The New York Times concludes, “Getting rid of widespread assessments won’t help the most vulnerable children; it will only leave us without knowledge about how best to support them.”

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