The Ever-Changing Landscape of Standardized Testing for College Admissions

Standardized Test with yellow pencil
Standardized Test with yellow pencil

It's been nearly 90 years since the first Scholastic Aptitude Test was administered in 1926. Originally intended to help identify academically gifted students from underprivileged backgrounds, the test claimed to measure innate ability--hence the "Aptitude" part of the name. The SAT has changed significantly over the years, including the name (SAT no longer stands for anything), and The College Board no longer claims that the test measures innate ability but rather looks at "developed reasoning."

So how exactly does today's SAT, or any standardized test, for that matter, relate to a student's ability to succeed in college? Some professionals, students and even schools themselves have been asking this question for years. While applicants with strong test scores are technically more likely to graduate from college, concerns abound over whether test scores deserve a place in the modern admissions process. Critics argue that standardized tests, first designed to give the underprivileged a better shot at a college education, instead frequently do the opposite today. There is a direct correlation between greater wealth and educational opportunity and strong standardized test scores. As a result, some schools have begun implementing test flexible policies.

To this point, the vast majority of schools utilizing such policies have been small, private, liberal arts institutions. The trend gained a boost in the national consciousness during the summer of 2015, when George Washington University announced that it would no longer require test scores to be submitted during the application process. "We want students...from all different backgrounds," stated GWU's Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton.

What does this "de-emphasis" of standardized testing mean for students?

For students who struggle with tests or lack the resources to prepare as much as others, it means that colleges are opening their doors in unprecedented ways. They'll still need to prove that they're ready for college, and they will need to be prepared for the school to ask for something in lieu of test scores, like a sample school paper. Schools skipping standardized test requirements are not necessarily easier to earn admission to. Instead, they are trying to give applicants other more diverse opportunities to demonstrate qualifications and preparedness.

For students with strong test scores, this means more competition in the admissions process. Also, there's now a point of diminishing returns in preparing for tests depending on target institutions. Students who are strong test takers may want to focus instead on extracurricular activities, leadership opportunities or engaging in internships or volunteer service.

Can students get into a good college without taking a standardized test?

The simple answer to this question is yes, though that comes with many caveats. Different schools have different policies regarding standardized testing, so applicants need to understand the specific requirements of each school. Some, like UT-Austin, allow students who graduated in the top 8 percent of their class to forgo testing altogether. Other top schools, like NYU, state that they are "test flexible." Although students still need to submit standardized test scores to gain admission, the school accepts options besides the SAT or ACT.

Will standardized tests be eliminated in the future?

Unlikely. Although the fairness of standardized tests has long been debated, the idea of completely removing those tests from admissions decisions is relatively new. In the future, test makers will likely have to come to terms with higher levels of public scrutiny regarding the significance of their tests. Also, look for more schools to adopt test flexibility in terms of different types of tests that are accepted. Overall, standardized testing will remain part of most schools' application requirements for the foreseeable future. At the same time, however, schools will continue endeavoring to more accurately evaluate applicants in diverse ways.

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.