Ethical College Admissions: Detrimental

Test scores disadvantage some students, but the way colleges use test scores may advantage no one, writes Jim Jump.

March 29, 2021
Imam Fathoni/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, the Fiske Guide to Colleges announced that it will stop reporting average SAT and ACT scores for colleges in the guidebook. Edward Fiske, the Guide’s editor and namesake (it originated as The New York Times Guide to Colleges), called the data “inaccurate and misleading” and said score ranges would be omitted for the foreseeable future. That decision seems correct given a recent Wall Street Journal article reporting that only 46 percent of students using the Common Application during this admissions cycle submitted standardized test scores, a substantial drop from 77 percent a year ago.

The announcement immediately fueled curiosity and speculation about whether the U.S. News & World Report college rankings would follow suit. Test scores have always been an important metric for U.S. News, counting for 5 percent of the overall ranking last year. Last year U.S. News discounted scores in computing a college’s ranking for institutions where less than 75 percent of applicants submitted scores, and that would appear to be the case for the vast majority of institutions with test-optional policies this admissions cycle. An Inside Higher Ed article on the Fiske announcement reported that U.S. News hasn’t made any announcement about its methodology for the 2022 rankings, but back in the summer U.S. News announced that it would begin ranking “test-blind” colleges. I wouldn’t mind seeing U.S. News make all colleges unranked.

Whether guidebooks and rankings should report and use test scores is only part of a much larger question. As we come to the end of an admissions year unlike any other, how should test scores be treated in a test-optional landscape?

That’s not a one-year issue. Many colleges that went test optional this year because of the pandemic have extended their policies for at least another year, and even before COVID-19 the test-optional movement was growing. But test-optional policies raise as many questions as they answer. Does “test-optional” mean different things for different institutions? Do test-optional policies reduce or exacerbate concerns about equity in college admission? Do colleges give submitters and nonsubmitters equal consideration? Are there unanticipated consequences to test-optional admission beyond the impact on the testing industry’s bottom line?

One of those consequences might be the dramatic rise in applications to the nation’s most competitive universities. That rise has been attributed to students being more willing to take a shot at extreme “reach” schools without having to submit scores. If highly competitive colleges and universities return to requiring test scores, it may be less about belief in scores as a metric and more about trying to tamp down application numbers so that they can process and read applications.

Are colleges giving advantage to students who have submitted good test scores, and should they? A different Wall Street Journal article reported that among early-decision applications to Penn, two-thirds of applicants reported test scores whereas three-quarters of those accepted did. That statistic by itself does not constitute proof, but it does raise questions about whether submitting test scores improved students’ chances for admission. I will be interested to see more data from other institutions.

Most of the discussion I’ve seen so far has focused on cases where submitting test scores has benefited applicants. But has submitting test scores also hurt some applicants? I recently heard that the admissions staff at a flagship state university told counselors on a Zoom call that they were surprised how many students submitted low test scores, stating that the presence of test scores was “detrimental” to their being able to admit first-gen and underrepresented students they wanted to recruit and enroll.

The promise of test-optional admission is that colleges will give both submitters and nonsubmitters equal consideration. But is that even possible? Admission officers are human, and they operate under the belief that more information is always better. I would also guess that the majority of admission professionals have some deep-seated fealty to test scores even if they know that admission tests are flawed. I have heard several admission officers comment that it is impossible to unsee a test score once viewed.

It is also the case that regardless of what you think about test scores, in this year student transcripts are less reliable measures than ever before, with some students having a virtual school experience that doesn’t come close to a normal classroom experience and many schools less rigorous in giving grades to students struggling with nonschool challenges during COVID.

That raises a question about whether good scores are more valuable in the current climate. A number of years ago then Kenyon dean of admission Jennifer Delahunty stated in a New York Times op-ed about gender in the admissions process, “Because boys are rarer, they’re more valued applicants.” She received lots of undeserved criticism for that statement, because what she was really stating was a poignant insight into the essence of selective admission. The rarer any talent or quality, the more valuable it is in the selective admission process. In 2021, when only a minority of applicants are submitting test scores, good scores are beneficial because they are rare.

That presents equity issues. COVID-19 has exacerbated the gap between rich and poor on all kinds of fronts, and college admission testing is among them. Part of the reason for the rise of test-optional policies was the simple fact that so many students weren’t able to test because of test centers that had diminished capacity or were closed altogether.

Students from affluent backgrounds often had the resources to overcome that. A friend who does independent counseling told me that one of her clients flew from North Carolina to Montana in order to take the SAT in an open test center. That is (I hope) an extreme example, but I know of students in the Washington, D.C., area who were assigned to take the test in West Virginia. There are some fortunate students whose families can afford to make that drive or stay in a hotel, but far more students who can’t. Rewarding good test scores advantages even more those who are already advantaged.

That leads me to return to the flagship university for which low reported scores were detrimental to admitting students they otherwise wanted to enroll. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I don’t get that.

I would argue that test-optional admission should work both ways. Not only should students have the option of whether or not to submit scores, but colleges should have the option of whether, or how much, to consider scores.

We know that test scores are meaningless without context. Two identical scores don’t mean the same thing if one is obtained through hours and thousands of dollars of test prep and the other isn’t. First-gen students and those from underresourced high schools may not even know that not submitting scores is even an option. That shouldn’t be held against them.

The point of the college admissions process is, or at least should be, to identify students with the potential to succeed in college. We have a special obligation to those students who most need access to education as a means to transform their lives. If there are students an institution wants to recruit or enroll, and test scores are the outlier, practice test-optional admission and ignore the test scores.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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