Testing Trends Revisited: Insights from Selective Institutions

A Short-Lived Experiment, For Some

Over the past several weeks, we learned of multiple selective institutions that ended their test-optional pilots and returned to requiring test scores. This follows the first mover, MIT, which made that change two years ago. This spring, we’ve heard the same from Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, and the University of Texas at Austin 

A close reading of each announcement reveals some similarities – notably, the idea that test-optional has been a hindrance to the schools’ “…ability to identify students from a wide range of economic backgrounds.” This aligns with the conclusions of Harvard’s David Deming, who’s studied the issue and states it plainly: 

As you can see, mathematics anxiety is inextricably linked to performance amongst our 15-year-olds, but within both subgroups, there is a mitigating factor: students who show a growth mindset towards math.  

The United States student performance benchmark in math ranked 28th out of 37 participating OECD countries, and that is indeed some cause for concern in a global economy that seems increasingly tied to performance in science and engineering. In this editorial, Bob Hughes from the Gates Foundation notes that the PISA is geared towards applied math, with problems testing students’ ability to deploy math reasoning in the real world. Incorporating more sense-making of math’s place in students’ future is a promising step, as is showing students pre-worked out examples – both correct and incorrect.  

 

Yes, SAT and ACT scores do strongly correlate with parental income levels. But when colleges take tests off the table, the remaining measures used to assess applicants are even morebiased. 

 

Where these test-returners differ is in their transparency around the internal data they used to justify this shift, ranging from none/minimal (MIT, Yale) to executive summaries or briefs (Brown, Dartmouth) to more comprehensive data sets (UT-Austin). In the case of Brown and UT-Austin, we’re also told that early indicators of academic performance for students admitted without test scores under test-optional are a cause for concern. While that certainly seems plausible, it’s hard to imagine that these institutions can conclusively point to that factor amongst others – such as the pandemic, declining mental health outcomes – as the most significant. 

 

Is Testing Back? Did it Go Somewhere?   

The sum total of these recent announcements, at least amongst the parents and students and educators we’ve spoken to, is a perception that “testing is back.” While these are high-profile institutions, they still only represent 5 out of the over 1,800 test-optional schools in the US. What I suspect students are reacting to is a lack of clarity and consistency across schools, even those in similar selectivity brackets; this article from the Washington Post captures some of these perceptions and sentiments amongst current high schoolers.  

 Skepticism is warranted around the slate of media articles that have come out in the wake of these schools returning to requiring the SAT/ACT. This review from Stephen Burd is a fairly compelling argument for scrutinizing the College Board’s shadowy influence. They certainly have significant and obvious motivations to turn the tide back towards testing.

 

Increasing Clarity around Test-Optional Nuance   

While most schools are sticking with test-optional, either permanently or for an extended pilot, we are seeing some movement towards increased clarity within those test-optional policies. Schools like the University of Chicago are spelling out a “No Harm” policy for submitters, while Ohio State is clearing up that they …recommend applicants take the ACT or SAT and submit test scores if they are available, as we believe that standardized test scores provide useful information and predictive value about a student’s potential for success…”, even as they remain test-optional.  

College counselors around the country don’t all feel the same way about standardized testing, but one area where we’ve seen agreement is that more clarity is needed for students around testing policies, in a world where the vast majority of schools have introduced some ambiguity by making them optional. That would be one step towards decreasing stress in an increasingly “crazy” admissions process 

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By Ben Neely
Ben serves as Revolution Prep’s Chief Research and Impact Officer, learning and speaking about admissions testing and the challenges students face in striving for academic excellence. After beginning his career as a high school math teacher, Ben has held roles in curriculum development and engineering management, and has spent more than 20 years helping families make their best decisions around the learning process. Ben earned his B.A. in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley and has been with Revolution Prep for 15 years.

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