There's a debate going on right now about whether test scores predict college success, and whether they should be used in the admissions process. The back and forth discussion between higher education professionals has actually been going for quite some time. The players range from college admissions teams, professors, college counselors, high school counselors, folks at Fair Test, and the testing companies ACT and College Board. Part of the discussion is focused on the assumption that test scores provide unequivocal empirical evidence of a student’s intellectual ability as a predictor for student success. New data, including a recent study, however, tells a different story. If you have the time to follow the news and read books like Paul Tough's "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us," or "The Big Test: The Secret History of Meritocracy," you will find that many admission professionals agree that test scores are not the magic formula to predict an applicants' ability and likelihood for college success. Over the last few years, several schools like the University of Chicago, Pitzer, and Cal Tech have either gone test-optional or dropped subject test requirements. Just this January, Northern Illinois University went test-blind, taking a bold step that, in part, acknowledges test scores are not entirely necessary as predictors of college success. What does this mean for students and families trying to interpret the news on testing? How can students apply this information when thinking about taking standardized tests? When reviewing applications to assess if a student is a good fit for their school, colleges look for many attributes and data points to determine fit, including the following:
Each college weighs various attributes differently depending on that school’s academic mission. As an example, Notre Dame puts a greater emphasis on Religious Affiliation/Commitment versus State Residency. In contrast, the University of Texas, Austin, weighs State Residency more heavily, and does not consider Religious Affiliation/Commitment, Level of Applicant's Interest, or Interviews as part of their review process. Yes, strong scores are good, and yes, having the most robust score possible may get your foot in the door at Ivy League and similar schools. Still, it is just one piece of the puzzle and not necessarily a piece that will significantly shift the overall review of an application.
Significantly, the primary data point is GPA and rigor in course work, not test scores. Test scores may underscore or mirror a student's mastery of their high school classes and may serve as an exclamation point to their academic abilities. But GPA and test scores don't always align and often tell a story that requires a closer look at an applicant, including where the applicant attended high school, what curriculum the applicant student studied, what the applicant did outside of school, and what the applicant values. This is when a holistic review of a student's application becomes essential. Many colleges utilize a holistic approach in their admissions review, and some colleges are now identifying attributes like character and community engagement as more important than test scores. The critical thing for students to remember is that standardized test scores are one data point in the college application, and Admissions teams recognize this. Nonetheless, some of the larger public universities with large applicant pools (e.g., the CSU system) rely heavily on GPA and test scores. The primary data point still given the most weight to predict student college success remains GPA.
If you're a junior, you most likely have a testing plan in place or are working on developing one, which should include identifying which test to take, the best timing to take tests, and possibly exploring test-optional routes. If you are an underclassman, you may just be starting to think about standardized tests and where they fit in your college timeline. While many schools continue to move toward test-optional options, determining if that option applies to you requires understanding several specific factors, including your strengths and abilities and the colleges you are considering. One of the major stories to continue watching is the shift in the direction of testing requirements being driven by the current review being taken by the UC Academic Senate Special Task Force, and how the UCs respond to the recent lawsuit. Until we know the outcome of the study and how any changes will be implemented (which may render taking standardized tests moot), the best plan is to "pay attention" and "stay the course." For most high school students, assuming that testing and a test plan will be part of the application process is the best route for now, and will keep options open, help avoid last-minute scrambling, and miss deadlines. As the admissions process evolves and the weight of standardized tests shifts, maintaining flexibility, and keeping your eyes on the road ahead will ensure that you have the most robust application that reflects the multiple facets of who you are. You are more than a test score when applying to college.
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