What Does Test-Optional Really Mean?

Free Practice Test for SAT / ACT

Recently, the University of Chicago announced that their admissions process was now “test-optional”, as reported in USA Today last month. This announcement has led many parents, students, and educators to ask us questions about what test-optional means and how it might affect the application process of students whether they are applying to the University of Chicago or not.

The first thing to consider is what test-optional means. A college that is test optional has indicated that they will accept the submission of test scores such as the SAT or ACT, however, should a student feel that SAT or ACT scores do not adequately represent the skills and abilities of that student, there is an alternate methodology for applying to that college that does not include test scores. Many colleges and universities, such as Bowdoin College or Wake Forest University are test-optional, and some have been so for decades. The recent explosion of interest in the topic is because the University of Chicago, ranked as the 3rd best National University by US News & World Report, is the largest and most prestigious college to go test-optional so far.

 Since the University of Chicago has only been test-optional for approximately a month, and the self-selecting population of students who will apply to this college will tend to come from those students who have taken the most challenging classes, including Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, and have pushed themselves to achieve the highest scores possible on the SAT or ACT, I wouldn’t be surprised if over 99% of the students who apply to the University of Chicago next autumn and winter submit SAT or ACT scores, if not both. What the shift to test-optional does for the University of Chicago is it allows the admissions officers to give more serious consideration to the small, but growing, number of students who both challenged themselves with high level classes in high school and struggle with strictly timed, highly structured standardized tests. These students are also often better served in the admissions process by submitting a portfolio of exceptional work they created in high school which can better provide admissions officers with a clear story about each student’s accomplishments.

Colleges that have been test-optional for years or decades still receive SAT or ACT scores from the majority of their applicants. According to its own website, Bowdoin College, the first college in the United States to go test-optional back in 1969, still receives SAT or ACT scores from approximately 70-75% of applicants. Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule brags that their test-optional policy has resulted in “…more diversity of all kinds — geographic, socioeconomic, racial, ethnic.”

The College Board disputes this claim, and has published articles based on research that they have conducted in an attempt to prove the value of standardized tests. If we look back to history for precendent, the College Board will adapt the SAT to meet the needs of colleges. At the turn of the last century, several colleges from both the Ivy League and the University of California system complained to the College Board that the SAT administered during the late 1990s did not adequately reflect educator concerns about the decrease in the quality of writing produced by high school graduates of the time. As a result, the College Board added a Writing section to the SAT in 2005 that included both grammar multiple choice sections and a essay. The ACT organization added an essay to their test as well, although the ACT already had a grammar section. When colleges complained that the SAT essay seemed to be too easy, the College Board increased the difficulty in the 2016 revision of the test. The ACT followed suit as well.

Even as more and more colleges go test-optional, the College Board and the ACT organization will adjust their tests in an effort to make the SAT and the ACT relevant for college admissions. Admissions officers see value in standardized test scores. The SAT and the ACT allow admissions officers to accurately compare grades and academic rigor from school systems across the United States and the world, and that is not likely to change any time soon.