What Do Test Optional and Score Choice Mean Anyway?

According to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 870 schools across North America have opted out of requiring students to submit SAT or ACT scores, contributing to what has been deemed a “test-optional surge.”

This trend is most apparent among small, private colleges (Bryn Mawr and Smith College, to name a couple) but it appears larger institutions, such as George Washington University and Wake Forest University, are also hopping onboard. In fact, George Washington reported a 28% increase in applicants since going test optional (interestingly, 17% of applicants decided not to submit SAT or ACT scores).

It’s not just SAT or ACT scores—now more schools have announced SAT Subject Test scores are no longer a requirement for application. Students can confidently apply to Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and Williams College without taking Subject Tests (though oftentimes it is still recommended).

At the same time, an increasing number of schools that do require SAT or ACT scores are jumping on the score choice bandwagon. We’ll cover what score choice means and how it affects students later on in this post.

For now, let’s focus on the movement towards test optional and its implications: Why are more schools choosing to go test optional, what does that mean for students, and how does this influence perceptions of the SAT and ACT?

Defining test optional

Test optional means that students have the choice of submitting their SAT/ACT or Subject Test scores to the colleges they apply to, but they are not required to do so. In terms of its direct effect on admissions, some view it as “making admissions decisions—without using ACT or SAT scores—for all or many applicants who recently graduated high school,” according to FairTest.

That means you, as a student, have the power to decide if your test scores can boost your application or if it may be better to withhold them. It allows for more freedom in building your most impressive resume for admissions officers.

NOTE: Test flexible is different than test optional. Schools that are test flexible still require students to submit scores, but allow students to submit, for example, Subject Test scores instead of SAT scores. Some schools even waive the test requirement if a student’s GPA is high enough. It depends on each individual school’s policy, so it’s good practice to check before applying!

So, what's the big deal?

The debate on the validity of SAT or ACT scores in college admissions has become a hot topic within the past few years. The most common question that’s asked: How predictive are test scores of a student’s academic ability?

Countless studies have been conducted to get to the bottom of this debate. However, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus just yet. This is, in part, why some schools have chosen to go test optional and why some still require scores.

Most recently, the National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) published a survey involving 424 colleges, finding that 51% of those schools consistently conduct predictive validity studies on how well SAT/ACT scores correlate to later college performance. Why is this an important study? According to David A. Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director of educational content and policy, "If admissions offices are going to require standardized tests, they would benefit both themselves and the students who are applying by knowing more about what those tests predict." As a result, they found the strongest predictor of college success is in fact grade point average, not necessarily test scores. While this sample size is too small to make any final conclusions, it sheds some light on why more schools prefer to be test optional.

Here’s something else to consider: going test optional opens up more opportunities for minorities or students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The cost of taking the SAT or ACT, in addition to the cost of sending scores to schools, can add up. Furthermore, students wouldn’t need to spend money to sign up for a class or tutoring.

The argument against requiring SAT Subject Test scores mainly revolves around admissions officers who no longer consider that data to be valuable. Furthermore, it once again puts students who come from lower-income families at a disadvantage—sitting for Subject Tests and sending in scores are just more expenses that bar them from applying to top notch schools. Interesting to note: This shift towards Subject Test optional comes around the same time the College Board released a report showing that Subject Test participation has dropped over the past decade by 14 percent. To put that into perspective, only 214,000 students took Subject Tests last year, compared to 1.7 million students who took the SAT.

While the idea that more students will be able to apply to college if test scores are out of the question is exciting, it also means schools can be even more selective in who they admit. If students aren’t submitting their lower test scores, the average test score then rises, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Curious to know how U.S. News & World Report ranks schools that are test optional? Find out here.

So applying to test optional schools doesn’t necessarily mean you have a ticket in. Most test optional schools actually require you to submit other information in place of your SAT or ACT scores. Sometimes that can be scores from an AP exam or having a minimum GPA. The alternative isn’t always beneficial for students.

It will be interesting to see where this test optional surge takes the SAT and ACT. As more schools opt out of requiring students to submit scores, will admission tests become a thing of the past? Or, will the College Board and ACT fight back? You can count on us to keep our eyes and ears open for more updates.

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Who's gone test optional?

We listed a handful of top U.S. Liberal Arts Colleges and National Universities that are officially test optional below.

SAT/ACT Optional:
  • Wake Forest University
  • Bates College
  • Brandeis University
  • George Washington University
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Smith College
    • "U.S. Citizens: SAT I or ACT and SAT II scores are optional for U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents."
    • "International Citizens: Standardized tests (SAT I, ACT, TOEFL, IELTS or PTE) are required for international citizens. The SAT I or ACT is required for students being instructed in English. The TOEFL, IELTS or PTE is required for students being instructed in a language other than English."
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Pitzer College
  • American University
  • Clark University
    • "Clark has an SAT/ACT test-optional policy...We encourage you to submit SAT/ACT scores if you believe they’re a good reflection of your potential success at Clark. If you choose not to submit these scores, other parts of the application (high school course selection, grades, recommendations, writing skills and nonacademic pursuits) will be given greater weight in our review."
SAT Subject Test Optional:
  • Amherst College
    • "Amherst no longer requires the submission of two SAT Subject Tests, but applicants who wish to submit Subject Test results may do so for consideration as part of the application evaluation process."
  • Dartmouth College
    • "We recommend that you submit 2 SAT Subject Test scores to help us better understand your academic strengths. We encourage you take tests in the two subjects you like the most. If you submit more than two subject test scores, we will look at your two best scores. Alternately, if you do not submit subject test scores, it will not prevent your candidacy from receiving a full review by the Admissions Committee."
  • Williams College
    • Subject Tests no longer included in Application Requirements
  • Columbia University
  • Barnard College
  • Duke University
  • Vassar College
  • University of California schools

For a complete list of test optional schools, check out FairTest’s page here.

Defining score choice

According to the College Board, “score choice” is a “score-reporting feature that gives students the option to choose the SAT scores by test date and SAT Subject Test scores by individual test that they send to colleges, in accordance with each institution’s stated score-use practice.” Additionally, they add, “Score choice is optional, and if students choose not to use it, all scores will be sent automatically.”

The ACT doesn’t specifically call it score choice, but their policy is nearly identical to the SAT’s. Students are able to pick which composite score they would like to show to colleges if they have taken multiple ACT exams. It gives you the ability to put your best foot forward! As always, though, remember to check each school’s requirements. Some schools require that students submit all scores from each test date.

The goal of score choice is to lessen the pressure on students to achieve their “best” score every time they sit for the SAT or ACT. Going into the test knowing that you don’t have to get that perfect 1600 or 36 can actually make all the difference in the world for many students. It’s all in your head!

Who's gone score choice?

We listed a handful of top U.S. colleges and universities below.

The College Board provided a comprehensive guide to SAT score-use practices from participating colleges and universities. You can view it here.

Our thoughts

ArborBridge recognizes that SAT/ACT and Subject Test scores are just one element of many in a student’s college application and not necessarily the best measure of his or her ability or likelihood to succeed. We support well-rounded students through test prep and academic support as well as mentorship and coaching.

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