Test-Optional Is Malarkey

Advice columnists in local newspapers may not be the best source of wisdom on elite college admissions.

When you have a question about highly selective college admissions, it’s best to ask an expert. That means don’t bother going to the deli to ask the butcher. Don’t ask the FedEx deliveryman. And don’t write an advice columnist in your local paper asking if your child should or should not submit test scores to “test-optional” colleges. Because, no, that advice columnist is not necessarily an expert in highly selective college admissions and the answer you get, well, could well be wrong. Allow us to share with our readers a case in point.

A reader wrote in to advice columnist Harriette Cole in The Mercury News. She wrote, “My son is a junior in high school, thinking about college. He has a lot of grand ideas for his future, and he is very excited. We are told that this year he does not have to take the SAT in order to get into college. Because of COVID-19, this will be the second “test-optional” year for many colleges. But I am worried that if he doesn’t share his SAT scores, he may be overlooked. He didn’t do great on the test, however. Otherwise, my son is a good student. He is focused and definitely wants to go to college. This year has been rough on him, though, and studying for the SATs was not his priority as it probably should have been. Should we pass on turning in those scores?”

And how did Ms. Cole respond? She replied, “Talk to your son’s college adviser at his school to find out the going wisdom about submitting test scores. What I have read is that the schools that opt into the test-optional policy truly are assessing in that way. For years, there has been controversy over standardized testing — throughout school, and especially the SAT and ACT. Many educators and community leaders consider the tests to be biased toward people of means. There is a huge industry built up around college prep testing that some consider to be primarily catering to people with disposable income. Bottom line: There are many questions about fairness surrounding these tests.”

Oy vey is right! Ms. Cole, of course, is absolutely wrong on “test-optional” policies — as the data, the lack of data, and the slips of tongue of admissions officers so confirm. Most highly selective universities are cryptically — and unsurprisingly — not releasing the percentage of students admitted with and without scores. As an example, Duke University bragged that 44% of applicants didn’t submit test scores but the school didn’t release the all-important figure of the percentage of students admitted without test scores. Of the few elite universities that have released such data — you’ll note most don’t include such pertinent information in their press releases about their incoming classes at least as of the time of this publication — the numbers point to the significant advantage students with test scores enjoy in admissions.

As an example, at the University of Pennsylvania, about 66% of Early Decision applicants to its Class of 2025 submitted test scores. And about 75% of Early Decision applicants who earned admission submitted test scores. So students who submitted test scores to UPenn this past Early Decision cycle held a statistically significant advantage in the admissions process over those who did not. As another example, at Georgetown University, 7.34% of Early Action applicants to the Class of 2025 who did not submit test scores earned admission. This compares to Georgetown’s 10.8% overall Early Action admit rate for the Class of 2025.

And if you don’t think the numbers tell the story, take a look at some of the Freudian slips admissions leaders have made to press outlets in recent weeks, highlighted by the gem Cornell University’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Jonathan Burdick offered to The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Interest Surges in Top Colleges, While Struggling Ones Scrape for Applicants,” Amelia Nierenberg writes, “Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We saw people that thought ‘I would never get into Cornell’ thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance,’” said Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment.” Oh, Mr. Burdick, who ever would have given these applicants the crazy idea that they had an equal chance of admission without test scores?

Yet it’s not like Mr. Burdick is the only admissions leader with loose lips. In a recent CNN piece by Yon Pomrenze and Bianna Golodryga entitled “College applications in pandemic year show deepening inequities in access to higher education,” NYU’s admissions leader offers a most interesting quote. As CNN reports, “‘You might find more students applying to an Ivy League or a school like NYU because they feel like they have a chance (now that test scores are optional),’ says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for Enrollment Management at New York University.

Ms. Cole, your advice to the parent who wrote in reflects a lack of understanding of the highly selective college admissions process. Might we kindly suggest you stick to giving advice on topics you know a thing or two about before publishing fallacies in the press? In our experience, publishing fallacies only perpetuates misconceptions and makes the already stressful college admissions process more stressful for all.

 
 

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