Why Standardized Test Scores Still Matter Despite the Test Optional Movement

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a group of students from a private school lined up while sitting and taking their exam

Why Standardized Test Scores Still Matter Despite the Test Optional Movement

Dreaded test dates loom on the horizon for every student beginning far too early in their academic careers. As soon as a student can hold a pencil, the assessments begin. Can the student write? Can the student read? Can the student calculate? Can the student speak? Can the student listen? Can the student think critically and comprehend? Students are always being assessed, and the importance of standardized testing has grown in recent years, but so has the test optional movement.

Test Optional Movement

Not a recent phenomenon by any means, the test optional movement has grown over the last few decades in response to challenges students faced accessing the test. The cost of the test combined with canceled test dates caused hundreds of schools to join the movement, growing from 1,070 schools before 2019 to 1,678 schools and growing after 2021. AdmissionSight has compiled a list of some schools with test scores optional for the 2022-2023 school year.

A man writing on a piece of paper

If a student decides to schedule and take the SAT and the ACT, then they have several options on what to do with their test scores. Unless a school is test blind, then colleges will still look at standardized test scores if they are included.

Schools with test blind admissions will not view test scores even if they are submitted with your application. At schools with test optional admissions, not including test scores will not penalize or detract from your application.

Taking note of which of your preferred schools require test scores early in the process can help with making the decision on whether to test or not. If all of the schools you’re interested in are test blind, then it would be totally okay to ditch the test.

However, if the admissions make testing optional but their selection is competitive, as most are, not including test scores could inadvertently hinder your application. Having more data points will give the admissions team a greater sense of who you are as a student and how you might perform and contribute on their campus. Learn more about the importance of standardized testing.

Should You Take Standardized Tests?

Initially, the offer to omit test scores seems especially appealing. Students can save time and money on preparing for and taking the two most common standardized tests. No more attending evening and Saturday test preps where you drill questions you’ll see on the test with hopes of memorizing strategies. No need to spend hundreds of dollars registering and scheduling test dates.

Instead, you can choose to focus your applications on other aspects of your academic careers, like the classes you’ve taken and the experiences you’ve had related to your chosen majors. Maybe you’ve sold your paintings in an art gallery or created a bot to run a website. These experiences help demonstrate your proficiency for college level learning with real world examples. This is one benefit standardized testing doesn’t have with its highly-controlled, artificial testing environment.

So, when students hear, “You don’t have to submit the SAT and ACT,” they may be filled with joy and ready to erase the test from their already full graduation plans.

They may immediately throw out their test prep books. However, submitting test scores when they are optional can only add further dimension to a student’s application, and if the scores are high enough, they can give a definite boost to your application.

Standardized test scores are a long-accepted hallmark of college admission applications, so the decision to omit them is a major one with specific benefits and drawbacks.

Types of Standardized tests

The two most common standardized tests required for college admissions are the SAT and the ACT. The two tests are very different, along with their scores, and the information colleges get from them in your score report can vary as well.

The SAT is administered by the College Board. It takes three hours to complete and consists of two parts, a reading and writing section and a math section. There is also an optional essay portion that students can elect to take to further demonstrate their writing abilities.

A female student very focused in writing

The SAT scores range from 200 to 800 and are usually combined to give students an aggregate score between 800 and 1600. The essay is scored from 1 to 8 points. Score reports also include a host of other information including percentile rankings, subscores, and crossover scores.

The ACT is administered by American College Testing and was presented as a competitor for the SAT, but most students who take the test choose to sit for both. The ACT consists of four sections instead of two assessing reading, English, scientific reasoning, and math. Each section is scored from 1 to 36 points, and the scores are averaged instead of combined for an aggregate.

Why Take the Tests?

Both the SAT and the ACT are intended to provide students with a uniform exam they can take to assess their fitness for university level work. This becomes important when you consider the variability of high school experiences students have prior to entering college. Colleges admit students from home schools and international schools in addition to students from public and private schools.

Students who attend homeschools may be required to follow state approved curriculums, or their families may have had greater freedom in their high school education. Students at international schools may receive instruction that emphasizes language learning or cultural immersion.

Group of students studying and reading together in the library

Private schools may follow religious teachings or have an especially selective curriculum. Even public schools in the same district may have completely different curriculums down to textbooks used and books assigned.

The differentiation in high school experiences reveals the importance of standardized testing. It gives schools the option to invite in a neutral, third party assessment of a student’s performance level. Intended as an equalizer, standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, still matter because of their usefulness in the college application process. The importance of standardized testing is in its purpose for leveling the playing field for all students to demonstrate their level of performance.

Median Test Scores

The major way that test scores impact college applications is through median test scores. These cut off points are the median scores a school would want to see indicating a student had a high chance of college success. Not all schools have cut off scores, and many admissions officers are adamant they accept a range of scores.

The test optional movement eliminates some of the risks for students who may not perform as well for a variety of reasons. Let’s say you’re having a bad experience, maybe severe anxiety, an illness or a breakup, the morning you have the SAT scheduled.

That would definitely impact your ability to perform to your best ability on the test. Maybe you missed your last few test prep sessions and didn’t learn a strategy you could have used on the test. These are the factors considered when the importance of standardized testing is questioned.

At the same time, college admissions officers at colleges will still look at standardized test scores because of how reliable they have been in identifying students who will perform well.

Correlations Between Test Scores and College Performance

Even if a school doesn’t have median test scores, there are definite markers in test scores indicating a student’s ability to successfully graduate from a college program. Obviously, high scores can be a good indicator of a student’s aptitude in the areas assessed. Being able to score well on an assessment of writing and reading would reasonably indicate a student’s future performance levels.

Students who score in the high percentiles have already demonstrated their above average performance. However, schools who do not look at test scores or allow a wider range of test scores have to develop a different framework for how they measure a student’s potential for success.

This usually includes looking more closely at a student’s high school coursework and GPA, but due to issues with curriculum variance across schools, even GPA is not always a reliable indicator of a student’s ability to succeed at the college level.

The relationship between GPA and test scores should be explored further to determine if one variable predicts college success greater than the other. The test optional movement would be a great way to further refine and streamline the college application process in general.

Other College Application Materials

Besides test scores, admissions officers use other parts of college application materials to evaluate a student’s rightness for their school. Students submit a variety of other college application materials along with their test scores that help to paint a complete picture. Even when test scores are included in applications, they are just one of many other factors.

A student’s grades are an accepted measure of how well a student will perform in college. If you have been taking advanced classes since freshman year and scoring high As with an occasional B, the likelihood of replicating this performance in college is high.

High achieving high school students typically go on to become high achieving college students and high achieving working professionals.

The extracurricular activities students participate in are another factor that becomes more important when test scores are omitted. Students need to be able to show they have a long-term interest in the major they’d like to complete.

At the very least, having leadership positions and evidence of passions show how a student’s interests propelled them. Without test scores, the activities a student has on their resume become even more important.

Letters of recommendation give a student’s application the benefit of third party validation in a subjective way. You might have favorite teachers, coaches, your religious leader, or even a mentor write your letters of recommendation.

These letters are obviously biased, especially if they come from someone who knows the student personally. So, while they do offer an added layer of external description of the student, they are still coming from a subjective writer. Test scores give that objective external description in much more neutral terms.

When schools eliminate test scores, they instruct their college admissions teams to look at other factors with greater scrutiny and weight. Even still, submitting test scores provides admissions officers with the ability to make distinctions among students with less subjectivity.

Benefits of Standardized Testing

The ACT and SAT do still matter, and colleges will continue to look at standardized test scores as a part of a student’s application. These assessments are a way for schools to set parameters of acceptance that keep their incoming classes high performing, capable, and ultimately, successful.

The benefits of standardized testing are that they encourage objectivity, comparability, and accountability. One of the ways to be completely objective is to develop a neutral and impartial assessment measure that everyone must take. The SAT and ACT have both been developed over time by non-profit organizations who aimed specifically to address concerns of college admissions.

unidentifiable female writing unto her notes

While other schools have tried to develop their own entrance exams and admissions measures, the SAT and ACT have both withstood the competition and remain the most used assessment for colleges and scholarship programs.

The SAT and ACT gives the same assessment to all students in a given year making it easy to compare every student’s performance. While there is some differentiation in quality of education and access to test prep prior to testing, students can all reasonably demonstrate their academic proficiency with enough reliability to predict how they will perform over four years.

There are even options for retakes if initial scores are not satisfactory. Considering how different the admissions process is from school to school, the SAT and ACT may be the most objective and easy to compare factor of every student’s application.

At the same time, the importance of standardized testing lies in its ability to engage with accountability for all stakeholders. The scores are an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning and skills along with their ability to test well. Test scores are also a chance for secondary schools to monitor how their graduating students perform after four years of high school instruction.

They also give admissions officers the opportunity to initiate different plans to strategically admit students from a variety of diverse backgrounds into their incoming classes. The test scores hold everyone accountable to a certain level of performance across an infinite number of circumstances and situations.

Future of Standardized Testing

Many schools are committed to eliminating standardized testing. The movement has grown from liberal arts schools to research universities, even the Ivy Leagues, like Harvard and Yale, have given students a reprieve from required test scores for several years. Other schools, like colleges in Florida, have continued to require test scores even during challenges of a global pandemic.

A person doing a checklist

Even with the test optional movement, students and schools recognize the importance of standardized testing. Students recognize the need to present an application that will showcase their talents and abilities in as many ways as possible at their best angles.

Having the option to submit test scores gives students even more freedom to craft an application that will ensure their admissions. Schools know it is important to help convey a student’s ability to perform relative to other students who also might be applying for the same limited number of admission slots.

If you are a student who performs well on tests and has the time and energy to study and prepare, then taking the standardized tests will only compliment your already brilliant applications. If testing makes you nervous and unable to perform as well as you know you can, then the test optional movement gives you the chance to show your excellence in other areas more important to your future goals.

In either case, standardized testing gives students and admissions officers options and flexibility to choose how they want to present their applications. This freedom should be considered carefully with a view towards weighing all the alternatives.

Whether a student takes the standardized tests or not, they will still need to present themselves as competent and capable, interested and passionate, and prepared for what a college education will be like.

To Test or Not to Test?

At AdmissionSight, we help students successfully navigate the college application process. We provide the facts and information on colleges and universities that students need, so you can submit the best application possible and learn the importance of standardized testing.

Figuring out what aspects of your high school career to highlight can be challenging if you’re not used to evaluating yourself. Knowing what makes you tick, what motivates you, and what you envision for the future are things we love helping students explore. Start chatting with us about your plans for future standardized testing.



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