The College Guy: What testing changes should students know?

For the Monitor
Published: 9/27/2021 7:07:21 PM

I have a college-bound senior and a sophomore in high school. I know a lot has changed with standardized testing, but what do we need to know?

As it turns out, you are asking the right guy. I too have a high school sophomore and senior, and I have been thinking a lot about these issues as a parent and a professional.

The testing landscape

As we enter the third school year impacted by COVID-19, access to SAT and ACT administrations remains inconsistent and inequitable. From New Hampshire to California, students are experiencing last-minute test center cancelations, and while some schools with resources offer the test just to their students, other applicants are left behind, potentially widening the opportunity gap. For this reason, the majority of U.S. colleges and universities (more than 73% of all bachelor-degree granting institutions) continue to employ “test-optional” admission policies that allow students to choose whether they want test scores to be considered as part of their application review.

Unfortunately, some schools and state higher education systems (I am looking at you Florida and Georgia) still require tests of all applicants.

Other states (thank you California) and specific colleges have adopted “test-blind” policies that remove the SAT and ACT from the equation for all applicants. To make things even more layered for students (many of whom are already fatigued by trying to keep it all straight), some colleges have “test-flexible” policies that still require tests but allow applicants to submit a combination of SAT, ACT, AP, IB or other standardized test results—so essentially not A or B, but C: “All of The Above.”

Optional, really?

We had a sign in our kitchen growing up that read “You Have Two Options for Dinner: Take It or Leave It”. My mother loved this message, but to me, it never really felt like a choice. I didn’t like asparagus, but if I chose the second option, I would go hungry and I knew my stomach would hurt all night.

When it comes to admission and standardized testing, if the college provides the option for you not to have scores considered, they mean it. Despite the public skepticism, it will not hurt you if you choose not to submit testing. That said if you were able to take the SAT/ACT and you have scores you are proud of, by all means, send them in, as they are just another way of telling your story in the application. Yes, optional really means optional, so go eat your dinner and don’t obsess about admission tests.

When to submit

Students who were able to take standardized tests and who are applying to schools with test-optional policies are often faced with the dilemma of whether or not to have their scores considered. Some decisions are easy — if you are applying to a highly selective college that traditionally accepts students with near-flawless testing and your scores are fair to middling, but your grades are exceptional, you will want to suppress your scores. But what if you did well on the SAT and/or ACT but perhaps not in the flawless range? Do you send them? As a general rule, you can look at the admission statistics that colleges publish – test averages or a range of scores (usually the middle 50%) for admitted students. Depending on the strength of your curriculum and grades, if your test scores fall below, or at the bottom end of the school’s range, do not submit. If your testing profile is above that of the average admitted student, green light.

The testing future

I will start by saying, we are not a family that tests well. My son, who is a senior, was fortunate that all the colleges to which he is applying have test-optional policies for this admission cycle. We decided early on that he had better things to do than waste his time preparing for a test that was not going to say anything about the kind of student or individual he is. Instead, he spent the summer working, taking driver’s ed., pursuing his interest in mycology, and hiking with his father — the kinds of things high school students should be empowered to do.

As I look into my crystal ball for my daughter, a sophomore, the testing future is a bit murkier. The plight of the second child strikes again. Not only will she have fewer photos taken of her (if you have more than one child you know what I am talking about), but she might also have to play the testing game. Some of the colleges and universities that responded to the challenges of the pandemic with humane testing policies have already announced their intention to retain this option indefinitely. Others are still piloting these policies while studying the impact on their school’s admission statistics and student success. Unless we have a clearer picture by the end of the school year, however, my recommendation will be for rising high school juniors to take some time this summer to prepare for standardized tests, as studies have shown the benefits of practice and learning strategies.

Don’t shoot the messenger, I am just sharing the truth as I know it. While I would love to declare that the SAT and ACT will be irrelevant within five years, we are just not there yet. One can always dream.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more, this Thursday at 7:30 p.m., I will be hosting a free, live webinar: “Much Ado About Testing.” I will be joined by a panel of testing experts who will discuss the intricacies of standardized testing, the test-optional movement, and preparation. My guests will answer questions live and registration is open to anyone

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to

Brennan Barnard is the Dean of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School, Director of College Counseling at Khan Lab High School, and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together” and the new companion guide released this month “The Truth about College Admission Workbook: A Family Organizer for Your College Search.”

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