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As spring and summer testing dates for the SAT and ACT have been canceled due to COVID-19, many colleges across the nation have announced that they will make the tests optional for those entering college in 2021.

Although these are mostly temporary policy shifts, the announcements come on the heels of a long-standing national debate about whether colleges should go test optional anyway. Opponents of standardized testing often paint test-optional policies as a great leveler that will make college admissions more equal, though the data are largely inconclusive.

Over the past few years, several colleges have adopted a test-optional model. Although increasing diversity is usually one of the first goals they cite, it’s also true that such policies benefit colleges by increasing the applicant pool and lowering their admit percentage, a key metric of prestige in college ranking systems.

Yet COVID-19 has forced many colleges to go this route with little to no planning. Given this scenario, it’s worth revisiting what we really mean when we say the test is optional. This phrasing is dangerous, particularly for students from low-income households, because it conflates “optional” with “unhelpful” or “not important.” After all, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is not required for college admission, but is it truly optional for students who can’t afford to pay full sticker price?

Like any institution, colleges operate according to their own sets of (often unspoken) norms. Because much of college admissions is a black box, even wealthy and well-connected families worry that their children haven’t accumulated enough achievements. For students and families who aren’t steeped in these norms, deciphering the rules of the game can be even tougher.

Students who would be the first in their family to graduate from college may be more likely than their wealthier peers to take the statement that a test is optional at face value. Why prepare and pay for a test that isn’t absolutely necessary, especially if you’re already dealing with limited resources?

Yet students and parents who are familiar with how educational institutions operate are well aware that there are a litany of “optional,” yet important, activities in high school. These activities range from taking AP classes to joining clubs and forming close relationships with teachers. Wealthier students don’t need to bypass the many opportunities available to distinguish themselves. So why do we insist that students from low-income backgrounds should? Why don’t we insist that they have access to all of the same opportunities?

As I’ve argued elsewhere, submitting SAT and ACT scores routinely increases students’ chances of being admitted to college, receiving more financial aid and placing out of remedial and introductory courses -- even at test-optional universities. The use of the term “optional” is irresponsible because it obscures the very real benefits students can gain from preparing for the test and submitting their scores.

While some argue that we should simply use high school grades rather than standardized tests to make admissions decisions, there are many problems with this approach, including the difficulty of fairly comparing grades across schools, districts and states and the fact that schools serving wealthier students routinely award higher grades. For students with a low grade point average, a high test score can provide admissions officers with additional information about their potential to succeed in college.

An exhaustive study by University of California faculty earlier this year found that making the SAT and ACT optional could actually decrease diversity on campus. In 2018, about 5,700 first-generation students became eligible through the admissions index -- which combines SAT and GPA -- who would not have done so on the basis of their GPA alone. So did about 5,000 students from low-income backgrounds. For these students, a strong SAT score made all the difference.

Although the UC system has also declared the tests optional this year, out of fairness to students who don’t have a score, its faculty Academic Senate believes so strongly in the tests’ value for students that it voted unanimously to keep SAT and ACT requirements for at least the next five years. Academic Senate Chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani said, “The way that the UC uses these tests protects disadvantaged students and allows for a more diverse student population.”

I can’t predict how COVID-19 will reshape college admissions. What I do know is that we need to be honest with students about the persistent inequities in the college admissions process rather than suggesting they can be fixed by a few simple tweaks.

That means we shouldn’t keep calling the test “optional” when we know a good score will increase students’ chances of getting into college, paying for college and graduating on time.

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