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Standardized Testing Policies in 2023

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Nial Rele Admissions Consultant

Written by Nial Releon June 15th, 2023

I have spent most of my career in higher education, serving in admissions and residential life roles at Middlebury College, Colorado College, Lewis & Clark College, and Harvard University. During my years in admissions, I worked with students and families from across the country and the world and have read thousands of applications. I wore many hats as an admissions officer including supporting applicants from international, first generation, and traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, managing a scholarship program and community-based organization partnerships, leading yield and data analytics, and working on athletic recruitment. I also have nonprofit leadership experience; I served as the Executive Director of the Vermont & New Hampshire Energy Education Program, and I am on the boards of the United Way of Addison County and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
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by Nial Rele, former admissions officer at Middlebury College The landscape of standardized testing has shifted rapidly in the last few years, and we work with many students and families struggling to figure out what is the “correct” choice on how much to prioritize standardized tests, whether to submit the test scores received, or whether to take the tests at all. This article shares an update on the current state of standardized testing policies, as well as some advice to help students and families make confident decisions around standardized testing. Let’s start by making sense of the different types of standardized testing policies you may come across:
  • Testing required: This means that a college is requiring that the student submit an SAT or an ACT score as part of their application. Some examples of colleges that require testing for the upcoming admissions cycle include MIT, Georgetown, Purdue, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, the U.S. Naval Academy, West Point, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
  • Test-free: Sometimes called “test-blind,” this means that a student does not have the option to send in a test score (even if they’d like to!) as it will not be considered as part of the admissions process. Some examples of test-free colleges include: The University of California and California State systems, Pitzer College, Worcester Polytechnic, and Reed College.
  • Test-optional: The college gives students the choice of whether to submit a test score. The majority of colleges across all levels of selectivity are now test-optional. The website hosts a frequently updated list of test-optional and test-free colleges. There are more than 1800 colleges that have said they will be test-optional or test-free for the fall of 2023.
An Important Note: Look closely at college admissions websites to confirm that a test-optional or test-free policy applies to you. There are colleges where recruited athletes, international students, out-of-state applicants, applicants to certain programs, or students hoping to be considered for a merit-based scholarship might be required to submit a standardized test score. Additionally, some colleges may require that applicants with high school grade point averages falling below a certain minimum submit a score. What trends are we seeing? While there are notable examples of colleges that have been test-optional or test-free for a long time, the vast majority of selective colleges introduced test-optional policies during the pandemic. The current trend is that many of these colleges will continue this policy for this upcoming cycle and some have made a longer-term commitment to being test-optional. Some selective colleges had adopted the policy as a pilot study. Their intent was to study the impact of the policy and make a more permanent decision down the line. Many of these colleges have solidified their commitment to a test-optional policy, while others, like MIT and Purdue, have reinstated their testing requirement. The Big Picture The current landscape means that, for students who are certain that standardized testing is not for them or who did not receive a score that feels representative of their abilities, they can rest assured that they will be able to pick from a long list of excellent test-optional colleges to apply to. It is important to recognize that, even prior to the shift toward test-optional, how a student performed across their four years of high school was always more important than their standardized test score. This continues to be true today. Therefore, schoolwork should always be the priority. Colleges that do not receive a test score from a student have plenty of information about a student’s academic profile and intellectual strengths to make a confident assessment. They can look at the grades the student received during high school but also the breadth, consistency, and rigor of their course selections, the letters of recommendation from their counselor and teachers, their writing, and their co-curricular and summer pursuits. Highly Selective Admissions & Standardized Testing Colleges that have a test-optional policy will tell you that students who do not submit a test score are not at a disadvantage to those who do. We believe this to be true but there are caveats. While not submitting a score isn’t a negative mark on an application, data suggests that for the most highly selective colleges, submitting a strong score could be meaningfully additive. Let’s look at the Common Data Set for highly selective colleges that were test-optional for the class that enrolled in 2022. The graph below notes the percentage of admitted students who submitted an SAT score (yellow), the percentage of admitted students who had submitted an ACT score (green) and the acceptance rate (orange) for each college. Note: the same students could have submitted both an SAT and ACT score, but the data doesn’t identify them separately. Common Data Set Standardized Testing Graph It is hard to come by consistent data that shows the admit rate for students who submitted test scores versus those who did not. From the data we do have access to, we can ascertain that a sizable proportion of successful students did submit the SAT, ACT, or both. Note that there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship between a student sending in the score and their success in the process, but it is noteworthy, nonetheless. With some outliers, we can also see a trend that, as test-optional colleges get less selective, the rate of test score submission gradually declines. In short, the data suggests that if a student is applying to highly selective colleges, while not essential, a strong test score could make for a helpful tool in their toolkit. Our Advice It is impossible to predict with certainty what individual colleges will decide around standardized testing in the future, but the dominant trend suggests that test-optional policies are here to stay. That said, our advice for most students is to put the effort into preparing for at least one best-foot-forward attempt at either the SAT or the ACT. We believe that having a test score, particularly one they feel represents them well, means they need not rule out any colleges just because they require testing. Timing is also a key factor here: Does the student feel they can prepare for either the SAT or ACT effectively without it detracting from their schoolwork? For some students, that means completing their standardized testing prior to the fall of senior year. Colleges will often report on their admissions websites the average SAT or ACT score for students who submitted their scores and were admitted. They may also report the mid-50% range test scores for those students. The mid-50% range consists of two numbers, for example, 1400-1500. This means that 25% of admitted students submitted test scores below a 1400, 50% of them scored between a 1400 and 1500, and 25% scored above a 1500. When deciding whether to send in a score or not, we often recommend looking up a college’s mid-50% range for the prior year’s admitted students. If their score approaches the 75%th percentile or is higher than it, then a student can be quite confident that their score is going to be a plus in their application.

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