In a move not unlike many of its contemporaries, Brandeis University has opted to pilot "test-flexibility," in which applications submitted after July 1st, 2013, will not be required to show standardized test scores. The Massachusetts school is not the first to make this move, nor will it be the last.
'Test-optional,' by nature, is a vague term, keeping up with the notorious lack of clarity in the application season. Strictly test-optional schools, for instance, will not accept or consider a student's scores at all. However, a majority fall in another, broader category, in which scores may be considered for international students, students applying for a special scholarship, class placement purposes, or research studies. According to FairTest.org, a standardized testing watchdog, more than a quarter of United States' schools are now test-optional in some form--a jaw-dropping number for students, parents, and college counselors alike.
What has prompted these colleges to exonerate their prospective applicants from their perennial standardized-testing foes? Candidly, according to the New York Times, many schools believe "that test anxiety is a real phenomenon and that those tense hours in a stale-aired gymnasium aren't reflective of a person's work ethic or aptitude." Even students with "fantastic SAT scores," for ideological reasons, are echoing their parents' and grandparents' old claim that the SAT is not a fair indicator of their high school achievement or their college readiness. The only difference is, in concordance with the current wave of progressiveness taking hold in the college application process, colleges are beginning to listen.
In addition, it is a widely known yet unspoken truth that SAT and ACT scores are both economically, and consequently, racially skewed. In the year 2012, for instance, the mean combined SAT score for students with an annual household income of less than $20,000 was 1322; students with an annual household income of over $200,000, on the other hand, had a mean combined SAT score of 1722. This absurd difference can be attributed to both the coaching and test-prep that the higher income students receive in comparison to their low-income counterparts, along with the general differences in the quality of schooling.
Whatever the difference, a 500-point difference on a 2400 point test, with household income as the central variable, is slightly unreasonable.
So what does this mean for students applying to schools like Bowdoin, Bates, NYU, Oberlin, Middlebury, and recently, Brandeis? For the moment, it's elation. Underprivileged applicants, or those who genuinely struggle with test anxiety, will make significant improvements to their application. All colleges now employ the "holistic application," and thus test-optional schools put an even greater emphasis on GPA, AP scores, interview, recommendations, etc.--i.e., everything but the tests. According to Mr. Hiss, the former Dean of Admissions of Bates University, which made the test-optional transition in 1984, "In eight or nine cases out of 10, the students are choosing not to submit for pragmatic reasons. "They've taken the test and they're not thrilled with the results. They've proven themselves to everybody except the testing agencies."
However, many admissions officers and college counselors are warning students to proceed with caution; just as in any monumental break from the application mold, there is collateral damage. These test optional schools, as a result of their progressive steps, have had a surge in applicants, leading to a much more selective admissions process.
While students that opt out of testing altogether hope that the counselors will spend more time on their essays, recommendations, and GPA, their fear, ironically, is exactly that: officers will spend hundreds of hours mulling over thousands of essays, recommendations, and GPA's, throwing mediocrity to the wayside. Extraordinary applications may become ordinary, simply due to the sheer number of them that are submitted. An ACT or SAT-less application needs to be as polished and close to perfection as possible, because if not, those 'testing agencies' will continue to be the ones with the last laugh.