The Will to Test in a Test-Optional Era

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Anjali Brown was about to take the SAT for the third time when she noticed clumps of her hair were falling out. Preparing for the exam back in the summer of 2020 made her anxious and cost her a lot of sleep, she says: “It definitely did affect my mental health.”

Brown, then a senior at a public high school in Plano, Tex., already had a high score. But she never considered forgoing another chance to improve it. Even though the highly selective colleges on her list had adopted test-optional policies during the pandemic, she remained convinced that they would want to see scores. So she stuck with her relentless and draining test-prep routine: “I was attached to it.”

You might think, or maybe really hope, that Brown — an oft-testing, test-fixated teenager — represents the last of a kind, an archetype from a fading era. After all, hundreds of colleges have suspended their ACT and SAT requirements over the last year and a half, and it’s a good bet that many institutions won’t reinstate them. So it’s tempting to believe everyone can stop stressing about tests so much.

But the truth is as complicated as a nonlinear equation. Though nearly three-quarters of four-year colleges have stopped requiring the ACT and SAT, an age-old belief system nourishes the notion that scores on those exams have great meaning. Anyone hoping to make sense of this transitional moment in admissions must acknowledge that the enduring will to test (and retest), and the drive to snag the highest-possible score, remains a powerful force among college-bound students. Though some students have learned to suppress such a will, others are embracing it as tightly as their test-centric predecessors did. And many feel ambivalent about the whole situation.

Why wouldn’t they? The nation’s most-prominent four-year institutions for decades held up the ACT and SAT as important measures of academic ability, influencing generations of parents, who passed on the idea to their children, who grew up with a specific understanding of What Counts. Then, all of a sudden, the Ivy League and scores of Ivy-Lites, many flagship universities, and lower-profile public institutions basically said, “JK, kids! These tests are totally optional, at least for now! Cool?”

Well, it depends. A superficial rendering of this moment would divide the world of prospective college students into two tidy camps, with rejoicing low-scorers over here and unwavering high-scorers over there. Though there’s something to that, let’s not forget: Teenagers are multidimensional beings who can have many conflicting feelings all at once.

Test-takers’ feelings about tests might reflect many things besides their score. When deciding how much to sweat exams and whether to submit the results to colleges, one’s identity, socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and self-image all might come into play. So, too, might a question: Is this campus really meant for someone like me?

In the months and years to come, colleges re-evaluating their long and often-fraught relationship with the ACT and SAT will use data, on first-year grades and retention rates and such, to assess the soundness of their testing policies. But let’s imagine a world where institutional researchers studied the effects of those policies not just on their institutions but on the well-being of their students, too.

The story of standardized testing isn’t just about numbers. It’s also about the experiences of young people coping with the emotional weight of of those exams. That weight is as real as the wrung-out teenager who once looked down and saw clumps of her own hair collecting in the shower drain.

Anjali Brown, now a freshman at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, studied hard in high school. She loved running track, playing the cello, watching Criminal Minds with her mother, and taking her goldendoodles, Cammo and Simba, on long walks. All along she was a chronic test-taker.

For Brown, mastering the SAT had meaning beyond getting into a big-name college. It was also a means of measuring up to her role models: her twin cousins, three years older. When she was 11, she saw the studious young men poring over SAT-prep manuals her uncle had given them. This planted the seed of an ambition that grew into a kind of pressure. She longed to make her uncle and cousins proud: “I wanted to do well on tests and be able to relate to them, to prove myself to them.”

The summer after Brown finished eighth grade, her parents registered her for an SAT class at KD College Prep, a company with a few locations in Texas. She spent several hours a day there, combing through study materials and absorbing the instructor’s lessons. “It was crazy,” she recalls. “You’re 13, and you’re going to do test prep at 8 a.m. But I never complained, and neither did any of my friends. It was just something we had to do.”

Inevitable. That’s how a serious commitment to test prep often feels to high-achieving students like Brown. The competitiveness within her peer group, she says, reinforced the feeling that the SAT was something you had to sweat early and often as a means of keeping pace. And she often heard that if you struggled with a class or two, a high test score would “catapult you out of that hole, allowing you to shine.”

No college official should underestimate the power of that prevalent belief, which helps explain why some students obsess about tests even when adults tell them not to. Prepping for exams can become a means of coping, day to day, with imperfections on your high-school transcript — and the fear of imperfections to come.

Two years of SAT courses at KD College Prep left Brown exhausted. What at first had seemed like a cool place to hang out with friends became a stressful hub of anxiety. So her parents paid for small-group tutoring sessions, which she liked better. Eventually, though, she chose to prep on her own.

After her school shut down because of Covid-19 in her junior year, Brown figures she spent at least 150 hours over several months studying for the SAT at home. She reviewed test questions for 60 to 90 minutes a day, devoured tutorial videos on YouTube. On Saturdays she took practice tests, which she pulled from the College Board’s website. After tearing through all of those, she dug up more on Reddit. Only on Sundays did she give herself a break from prepping.

Michelle Kondrich for The Chronicle

Brown saw some benefits in this routine. For one thing, she didn’t want to think of herself as someone who gave anything less than her all. Endless prep, she says, kept her motivated and helped her overcome the anxiety she had long felt when taking any kind of exam. When she got a practice-test score she was happy with, she felt a rush of dopamine. “As annoying and tedious as it was,” she says, “I thought of it as a game, just trying to see patterns in the questions. When I took the test for real, I had seen every question before in some form. That’s how well versed I became.”

Still, Brown sometimes couldn’t fall asleep because she would keep thinking about that one math question she had missed on a practice test. She often wrestled with an unpleasant thought: After years of prepping, with all the resources her parents had poured into it, she would have no one but herself to blame for a less-than-stellar score. “It was on me,” she says. When her parents, both doctors, assured her she could stop studying and apply to colleges without submitting scores, she balked. She wanted that score. For herself.

After taking the SAT for the third and final time last fall, Brown got good news. She had raised her score by 110 points, scoring in the 99th percentile of all test-takers. She felt happy, relieved — and unsure. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, was this all really worth it?’”

There’s often comfort in certainty, even if the certainty is kind of unpleasant. As much as Stephanie Sylla used to feel anxious about taking the SAT, she didn’t like it when the University of Virginia and other highly selective colleges she was considering dropped their testing requirements. After all, she had long defined herself by preparing for every part of the admissions process. Almost overnight, her checklist of mandatory tasks no longer included taking the SAT. The choice was hers, which felt unsettling.

Growing up in Woodbridge, Va., Sylla had started thinking about college, down to what her dorm room would look like, before her 10th birthday. She started preparing for the SAT at 13, later completing thousands of practice questions online.

During the summer of 2020, Sylla, then a rising high-school senior, maintained a draining study schedule while preparing to take the SAT for the first time. She spent several hours a day at her dining-room table, tackling practice questions with a ticking timer amid a rainbow of sticky notes she had written. Like many high-school students, she worried colleges with hastily adopted test-optional policies would look askance at applicants without scores.

Sylla, the daughter of Guinean immigrants, felt a particular kind of pressure to excel on the SAT. She believed she would have to clear a higher bar than white applicants did to impress admissions officers. “As a Black woman applying to Ivy League colleges with a small number of Black students,” she says, “I felt like I was going to be at the bottom of the barrel, at a disadvantage, because people have often underestimated me. The test, for me, was going to be a way to even up the score, this thing I needed to give me some type of leverage, to give me some equality.”

As the summer wore on, Sylla felt overwhelmed. “I was in this really dark space,” she says. “As the first one in my family born in the States, I felt a lot of pressure, being part of my parents’ legacy, knowing people had a lot of faith in me.” Her performance on the PSAT and practice tests suggested that she would get close to a 1400 (out of a possible 1600) on the SAT: “But I was still craving this higher score.”

Jennifer Jessie, a testing tutor she had come to know and trust, urged her to ease up on herself and stop prepping. Sylla had a 4.3 GPA and plenty of Advanced Placement courses. After learning that she couldn’t take the SAT last August because of Covid protocols, she talked with Jessie, who told her, “You don’t need this test. Your application is really strong.”

Sylla, unconvinced, was planning to sign up for another test date when Jessie arranged a Zoom chat with Jeannine C. Lalonde, associate dean of admission at UVA. Sylla peppered her with skeptical questions, saying she was sure the university would punish applicants without scores. Lalonde acknowledged her concerns. Then she explained that applying without a score wouldn’t put her at a disadvantage. She walked Sylla through UVA’s review process, describing how admissions officers emphasize an applicant’s transcript, the courses taken and the grades earned, far more than an ACT or SAT score.

The young woman listened carefully, absorbing what Lalonde said, feeling reassured. Later, after a heart-to-heart talk with Jessie and chats about testing with admissions officers at a few other colleges, Sylla woke up one morning, brushed her teeth, and carried all her SAT study guides down to a storage closet in the basement. She deleted the bookmark for the test-prep site from her web browser. She spent the day napping and watching Netflix, feeling happier than she had felt in months.

That night, Sylla told her parents she wasn’t going to take the SAT — a tough conversation. “It was a lot on my shoulders, all of a sudden having to explain to my foreign-born parents that, Oh no, I don’t need this test they had heard a lot about,” she says. “They were confused, they were worried, asking, ‘Are you sure this is OK? Are colleges going to treat you fairly?’” But having seen the toll that so much prep had taken on her, they supported her decision. After all that practice, she never took the SAT.

In losing the will to test, Sylla says, she gained something else: confidence in herself. She was accepted at UVA, where she’s now a freshman planning to major in economics. She believes her decision not to test will help her younger sister, Amelie, keep standardized testing in perspective.

Requirements are easy enough to change. Perceptions, not so much. ACT and SAT scores have long carried more weight in admissions than plenty of critics thought they should, but, generally speaking, less weight than many people have long assumed.

Lalonde, the UVA dean, has been thinking for a long time about common misunderstandings of testing’s role in admissions. She grew up in Bergen County, N.J., a hotspot of testing anxiety. Her own college counselor once held up both hands, side by side, raising one to explain how a higher test score could offset a deficiency on a high-school transcript.

But Lalonde says that’s not really true, at least not at the colleges where she has worked. She likens UVA’s holistic review process to a puzzle. “The test is a small piece of the puzzle compared with the other pieces,” she says. “We don’t use the testing piece to cover up a hole somewhere else.”

UVA, which will remain test-optional through the 2022-23 cycle, plans to assess the impact of that policy before deciding whether to make it permanent. Among applicants seeking admission for the fall of 2021, 43 percent didn’t send scores, and 28 percent of all accepted students were non-submitters. When reading files without an ACT or SAT scores, Lalonde says, “I got four seconds back — I didn’t sit there and think ‘What does this mean?’ as I am doing a deep dive on a transcript.”

Lalonde considers conversations like her informal Zoom chat with Sylla a key part of her job: explaining in detail how she and her colleagues review an application. She thinks more colleges should do that. Especially following the sudden shift in requirements, which have only intensified the uncertainty for the many applicants who perceive that the rules of admissions just became less clear-cut.

“We need to acknowledge,” Lalonde says, “that test-optional policies took one thing that produces a lot of anxiety — test-taking — and changed it to something else that produces anxiety, which is trying to decide what colleges want and whether to send scores.”

The trick is that not all newly test-optional colleges operate the same way. Though many admissions officials have embraced the suspension of ACT and SAT requirements at their institutions, others have accepted it only grudgingly. A few tell The Chronicle privately that they feel more comfortable reading applications with scores, either because that’s the way they’ve always done it or because they believe the metric adds to their understanding of each applicant . Some college counselors say that several prominent institutions that recently suspended their testing requirements continue to tell them informally that they strongly prefer applicants to send scores.

Colleges have been sending mixed messages publicly, too. Several large public institutions — such as Clemson University and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa — don’t require the ACT and SAT for admissions, but do require scores for non-need-based scholarships. Hope College, in Michigan, which doesn’t require tests for admission or scholarships, nonetheless says that “strong scores can be a ‘plus factor’ in helping scholarship-eligible students qualify for a larger merit scholarship.”

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville requires non-submitters to write an additional essay, on leadership. Auburn University is test-optional … but only for applicants with at least a 3.6 GPA who are “unable to secure a test score”; furthermore, “scholarships, honors participation, and other opportunities may be limited for students choosing a review without test scores.”

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s lengthy explanation of its “test flexible” policy says applicants who don’t send ACT or SAT scores can choose to “submit other optional forms of testing,” such as scores on AP exams. Also, early-action applicants who aren’t admitted without scores can still submit them for consideration in the regular-decision round.

Then there’s Georgetown University, which has said that it’s not test-optional. Students who can’t take the ACT or SAT because of Covid-19 can still have their applications considered under its “flexible” policy, the university has told counselors. Georgetown invites such applicants to explain on a form why they were unable to test.

Is it any wonder a student might suspect that many people in higher education continue to value tests?

The so-called test-optional revolution, which began years ago and accelerated at light speed in 2020, has simplified life for some applicants and complicated it for others. One upshot: A school counselor or college adviser who knows the ins and outs of the admissions realm has become even more valuable over the last 18 months.

Carolyn Blair, a college counselor at Clayton High School, in Clayton, Mo., says her advising sessions have recently become more nuanced. She advises many students to take the ACT or SAT, just to see what score they get. “It’s been drilled into them for so long that these tests are important, that it’s their shot,” she says. “Many of them still want their shot. If they can get some killer scores, it’s not going to hurt them. That’s a fact that’s not going away.”

Helping applicants decide whether to submit those scores to a given institution can be tricky, though. “It varies from student to student,” Blair says. “And it varies from college to college, depending on the list of places they’re considering.”

A recent analysis by the Common Application captures the strategizing that took place in the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Fifty-seven percent of all students using the Common App form didn’t submit a test score to a single college, up from 23 percent in the previous cycle. But 24 percent of applicants submitted scores to some, but not all, of the colleges they applied to, up from just 4 percent. That was a one-year increase of more than 200,000 applicants.

As they’ve done forever, prospective students continue to check each college’s “middle 50,” the range of scores between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile among enrolled students, which helps applicants gauge their competitiveness for admission. Generally, counselors are telling applicants to submit scores if they fall within an institution’s middle-50 range — and, if not, to withhold them. That’s sound advice, but it also perpetuates an understanding of tests as something to show off or something to hide, depending on one’s performance.

Sanjay K. Mitchell has been trying to strike a balance when discussing testing with his students. Though he doesn’t want to discourage anyone from taking the ACT and SAT, he is wary of their “taking the test just to take the test.”

Mitchell, director of college and alumni programs at the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter school in Washington, D.C., recently surveyed his seniors about their testing plans. Many students with high grades said they intended to opt out and apply without scores, but many with lower GPAs planned to take the ACT or SAT at least once.

“There’s this anxiety from the middle bunch, who feel they must take it,” Mitchell says. “For others, there’s still this level of ritual that they want to participate in, a belief that if they don’t do it, they’re going to miss out.”

Mitchell’s school serves many low-income and underrepresented students hoping to become the first in their families to attend college. He has seen teenagers melting down in the hallway after learning they didn’t get the score they had hoped for — an outcome that can deliver a demoralizing message.

“Bright, talented students just have that light snuffed out of them when that test score comes,” Mitchell says. “So much of who they are as a college-bound student is tied into that test, and when they don’t get that score, it’s a defeat of the whole ideology of ‘I’m going to college.’”

A not-so-great score might upset any teenager. But there’s a big difference between not getting the score you wanted while knowing all along that you’ll end up at a desirable four-year college your family can afford … and not getting the score you just might need to move yourself into college at all. “For marginalized students, this idea of going to college is a whole-family movement,” Mitchell says, “and when students see those scores and feel like they no longer have options available, that they’re not college-ready, it is not just ‘I don’t have options’ — it’s ‘My whole family doesn’t have options.’”

Natalee Deaette has also seen how testing can stoke students’ self-doubt. “Many of them feel that the test is an indication of their worth,” she says.

Deaette, program director for Access Opportunity, an organization in Boulder, Colo., that helps high-achieving, low-income students, says many of the applicants she’s advising plan to take the ACT or SAT, because they expect to test well. Some worry that their grades alone won’t be sufficient because admissions officers might question the rigor of their high-school curriculum.

Proponents of test-optional programs like to say that dropping ACT and SAT requirements sends an encouraging message to prospective students who don’t test well. That happens — but not always. One of Deaette’s advisees, a high-school senior with perfect grades, recently expressed hesitancy to apply to a highly selective college because her test scores weren’t in its middle-50 range.

“She decided she wasn’t going to be competitive,” Deaette says. “She believes this test, which is supposed to be a measure of her academic prowess, is telling her that she doesn’t match up.”

Even when not required, a college’s scores can transmit a powerful message.

Let the pundits predict the future of standardized testing. The present, full of drama, is surely just as intriguing. Right now, many players in the admissions process are navigating a complicated liminal space between two eras. The surge in test-optional policies encourages counselors such as Mitchell, who has seen some of his students become excited upon realizing they can apply to their top-choice colleges without scores. But he knows that a test-optional policy alone doesn’t guarantee more-equitable admissions outcomes.

Amid all the angst about testing, though, let’s not forget: Plenty of high-school students, for better or worse, don’t sweat the ACT and SAT. Because they have many pressing day-to-day challenges. Or because no one told them they should. Or because they strive for colleges that define themselves by access, not exclusivity.

“Many of our students are the first in their family to go to college, and they don’t grow up thinking about how test scores determine their fate,” says Mary Aguayo vice president for strategic enrollment management at the University of La Verne, a Hispanic-serving institution in California that admits about 70 percent of its applicants.

La Verne went test-optional months before the pandemic. Just 7 percent of applicants accepted for this fall’s freshman class submitted scores. “Our students did not want the test,” Aguayo says. “They did not want to submit scores even if they were able to take it.”

Still, standardized tests will keep looming over hordes of college-bound students. Many will continue to take the ACT and SAT at least once because it’s administered in their high schools during the school day. Their decision won’t be whether or not to test, but whether to test a second time — and whether to send their scores to colleges. Those with middling results might worry that they will look even worse to colleges in a world where many lower-scoring students won’t submit. High scorers might worry that their results won’t count as much as they would have in 2019, though it won’t be true.

Alexis Plumley is letting go of testing worries, though. The pandemic, she says, caused her to rethink her priorities. After finishing her junior year of high school, in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., this June, she felt drained. “I was just over it,” she says. “I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I wanted summer.”

Plumley had taken the ACT for the first and only time at her public school during a difficult stretch this year. Her mom had just returned from a stay in the hospital after suffering a stroke, and her father was recovering from Covid-19. At the time she was driving her little brother to school each day and looking after her father’s pets. She wasn’t surprised when she saw her ACT score. “Just completely bombed,” she says. “My mind wasn’t in it when I took it.”

Upset with her score, Plumley kept telling herself she would take the exam again. Her parents pushed her to do so, and she felt the weight of peer pressure to retest. “People were telling me, ‘You have to take it, you would be crazy not to,’” she says. “I felt like if I didn’t take it, they would think I was dumb or lazy or getting burnt out.”

As she thought about prepping for the September ACT, though, Plumley wondered when she would find the time. She knew she would be taking five Advanced Placement courses this fall. She plays on a competitive soccer team and works 25 hours a week at a Starbucks. Ultimately, she decided not to retake the exam because she didn’t want to live with testing anymore. She plans to apply to a handful of highly selective public and private colleges, plus at least one less-selective institution, without scores.

Plumley chalks up her decision to self-knowledge. “If I had taken the ACT again and not gotten the score I wanted, I would have probably kept testing and testing,” she says. “That’s not a great mind-set to be in.”

And that mind-set, after all, is optional.