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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Does test-optional admissions achieve its goals?

Does test-optional admissions achieve its goals?

 In 2020, Macalester, alongside hundreds of other U.S. colleges, announced that it would no longer require standardized tests in college applications. Though this happened during pandemic shutdowns, Macalester was one of many higher education institutions that made this change a permanent one. 

More recently, however, a smaller counter-reaction has unfolded. Last week, both Harvard and Caltech announced that they would be reinstating their standardized test requirements for future classes. These schools joined multiple other highly competitive colleges that have reversed test-optional admissions policies in the past couple of years. 

To be sure, only a small group of relatively elite schools have brought back their standardized testing requirements — hundreds of schools continue to allow test-free college applications, while the University of California school system altogether excludes standardized tests from applications. But as some schools decide to bring tests back, we should take their arguments seriously and understand the downsides that may come with a test-optional policy. 

At the core of this debate is how colleges can increase access and equity. When Macalester announced that they were removing the requirement for standardized tests, the college’s statement expressed a common sentiment: “standardized testing may disproportionately affect some of the very students it seeks to attract,” including low-income students and students of color. Indeed, SAT scores are meaningfully correlated with student backgrounds.

While students with more privilege can retake a test additional times and access specialized test prep services, this correlation also reflects much deeper inequalities in educational backgrounds, as psychology researcher Kathryn Paige Harden has written. Thus, Harden argues, taking standardized tests out of the admissions process does little to address the underlying inequalities that they reflect. 

On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine that the other elements of a college application would reproduce existing privileges and inequalities in even starker ways than a standardized test. Consider some of the other key components of a college application: personal essays, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. These processes could be much more gameable than a standardized test — and ultimately, more likely to benefit already-privileged students. One study has found that the content and style of college essays had a stronger correlation with students’ socioeconomic status than test scores. And which students are more likely to have the connections, know-how and time to get an early summer internship or receive additional training to excel in their hobbies? 

If colleges are not considering SATs for all students’ applications, then their admissions decisions are likely to place stronger weight on even more biased elements of students’ resumes.

In a recent essay, writer Emi Nietfeld described dealing with severe housing instability and substance abuse issues as a high school student, which led to her having to spend months in an institutional facility. Despite these circumstances, Nietfeld could still study for the ACT. Two sentences are worth quoting in full:

“I couldn’t go to the bathroom without permission, let alone take Advanced Placement Latin or play water polo or do something else that would impress elite colleges. But I could teach myself the years of math I’d missed while switching schools and improve my life in this one specific way.” 

In February, Dartmouth — another school to renege on a test-optional admissions policy — shared findings of an internal report on how the school’s policy had functioned thus far. Surprisingly, they found it had exacerbated inequality through an unexpected route: less-advantaged applicants chose not to report their test scores because they thought their scores were too low, leading to the rejection of students who would likely have been admitted otherwise.

This is not an argument for giving up holistic admissions processes, nor for rejecting otherwise strong students who have lower test scores. No one wants a world in which standardized tests rule out all other considerations about prospective students. But the findings highlighted by other colleges should make us think twice about dropping the requirement for tests. 

Jeff Allen, Macalester’s Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid, wrote in an email to me that since 2020, Macalester’s test-optional policy seems to have achieved its goals of removing application barriers and offering students more flexibility.

“Several cycles into the new environment, I can share that — from my perspective — the implementation of this model has been quite successful from a variety of perspectives, including and most especially around the main objectives of the plan,” Allen wrote. 

Allen also shared that President Suzanne Rivera had formed a working group of faculty and staff, chaired by Assistant Vice President and Dean of Admissions Elyan Paz, to evaluate how test-optional admissions had been working thus far. He expects that the group will share its initial findings with Rivera this summer.

Generally, I trust that Macalester has been thoughtful and working in good faith on the issue. According to reporting in The Mac Weekly, Allen and the admissions office have been thinking about this issue since at least 2018, or well before the widespread removal of standardized testing requirements in 2020. And Macalester is not the same as Harvard, Dartmouth or Caltech. Among many differences, it’s much smaller, and perhaps Macalester can more feasibly avoid the pitfalls of test-optional admissions described above (some small liberal arts colleges, including Bates and Bowdoin, have been test-optional for decades).

At a higher level, two root issues mean that policies about standardized tests will never be enough to address the larger problem at hand. While SAT scores might correlate with student backgrounds, to some degree this correlation simply measures deeper inequalities in access to education and other resources. Obviously, there’s no easy fix to that matter, especially not within Macalester’s reach.

And like so much debate about college admissions, there’s no escaping the fundamental exclusivity that drives discontent around admissions policies. That’s true at Harvard, which receives applications from far more qualified students than it could possibly admit. The same is true for Macalester, which promises many great things to students, but will fundamentally never serve to provide widespread education and social opportunity in the way that large public schools do.

Though they may be marginal, the decisions we make around college admissions do matter for students. As a Macalester community, we should ask ourselves tough questions about whether a test-optional policy achieves the goals we have in mind.


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About the Contributor
Zak Yudhishthu
Zak Yudhishthu, Managing Editor
Zak Yudhishthu '24 is one of the Managing Editors, from Portland, OR. He's majoring in economics and minoring in music. He likes to devour Stacy's Pita Chips.

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