Test optional offers college students with low scores a way forward

By Mark Lieberman

Zach Ewell, a sophomore studying film at American University, suffers from dyslexia and tends to underperform in conventional standardized testing environments. He received a 13 on his ACT, eight points below the national average.

When it came time to apply to college, Ewell realized he needed to find a school that would judge him on qualities beyond the raw numbers.

Test-optional admissions made the difference in Ewell’s decision about his future. In this admissions model, colleges offer applicants the opportunity to withhold their standardized test scores from the admissions office. The decision to admit or deny a student then comes down to other factors like the resume and supplemental essays. In some cases, the school has automatically received the test scores and must separate them from the rest of the application in order to meet the student’s request.

Test-optional admissions offers an antidote to what Ewell suggests is a rampant problem in the American education system: students with minds — or, in some cases, wallets — unsuited for the specific rigors of the SAT and the ACT find themselves at an inherent disadvantage.

“For kids who have disabilities, or kids that can’t afford it or their parents can’t afford it, it’s just ridiculous,” Ewell said. 

For many college students, test scores represent the clearest roadmap to their future plans. They spend months agonizing over practice books and muddling through prep courses, all in service of demonstrating their knowledge one bleary-eyed Saturday morning.

This admissions method could spell trouble for the College Board and other organizations that profit from standardized testing at the high school level. But for students and admissions counselors alike, the process has plenty to offer.
American University first experimented with “test optional” admissions in 2010 with a pilot program that allowed students applying early decision to withhold their scores. Greg Grauman, AU’s assistant vice provost of undergraduate admissions, said the program, designed to test the viability of a push for test-optional as a business practice, initially presented some challenges within his office.

“It’s just a training issue to the point that now we have a team that’s very used to that,” Grauman said. “It probably takes a little more time to review applications without standardized testing.”

Though he couldn’t put an exact number on the additional time required to assess applications without test scores, he could say that other factors naturally make more of an impression if test scores aren’t a factor. 

“Maybe a grammatical error or two doesn’t stick out as much or is not as concerning when you’re looking at 800 on their critical thinking,” Grauman said.

Grauman and his team frequently present the admissions process to prospective students and families, and questions about the true intentions behind the test-optional process often come up, he said. He makes a point to emphasize that the goal of “test-optional” is to widen the applicant pool and encourage students with different skill sets to apply.

“My concern had been that students might look at our admitted student profile and say, “That’s not a school that I even could be accepted to,’ while they’re just focusing on something that really has very little impact in terms of their success at their university,” Grauman said. “We were concerned that there were students who are great AU students who just weren’t applying.”

For Bob Schaeffer, an advocate for test-optional admissions who works at FairTest – a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that promotes test-optional admissions and other progressive educational practices – requiring test scores negatively affects students and families far more than the schools.

“It costs colleges virtually nothing to get test scores,” Schaeffer said. “All of the costs – financial and emotional – are on the backs of teenagers and parents.”

Common misconceptions about AU’s test optional process include the idea that withholding test scores might make the admissions staff assume they are low. Grauman has some evidence to the contrary, in the form of test scores that students submitted but then asked to redact from their application. While that data didn’t factor into the admissions process, Grauman’s team examined it for analysis after the fact. Many of the scores were low, but some were much higher than AU’s average.

“If you feel strongly about the scores that you got regardless of what they are, you should submit your scores,” Grauman said. “If you feel that they are not a reflection of your best work, for whatever reason, no matter what the score, you can choose not to submit them.”

On average, approximately 17% of applicants to AU in a given cycle withhold their test scores,  Grauman said.

“I think there’s greater recognition whether it’s college counselors and high schools and school communities that you have the option not to submit testing,” Grauman said. “That’s a good thing for the university.”

Had his school in Illinois properly prepared him for the tests, Ewell said, his perspective might be different. But he says he never got the specialized training for standardized tests he would have needed in order to pass.

“It’s a never ending circle of you’re going to stay in this same level,” Ewell said. “You’re never going to get into Honors or AP by taking a test when you haven’t been trained in it before.”

By the time senior year was drawing to a close, Ewell had enough AP courses and other academic accomplishments on his resume to impress schools that offered him the opportunity to withhold his test scores. He settled on American because of its reputation as a school with a healthy program for students with disabilities 

“It’s something that is becoming more and more common,” Ewell said. “Test scores are fine but they don’t really show if you’re a good student. You can be born as a good test taker. Your parents could pay money for you to take classes and then get a good grade.”

The number of students taking standardized tests in the United States has increased over the past twenty years, suggesting that the test-optional model has yet to fully catch on nationwide.


Infographic by Mark Lieberman

At the same time, the number of schools that accept applications without test scores has risen to 160, according to FairTest. 

The decision to withhold test scores is a no-brainer for some students. Lela Feldmeier, who graduated from AU in December, said she simply wanted the school to judge her on other factors.

““I didn’t think my test scores were a reflection of how well I could perform in college/how well I have performed in high school,” Feldmeier said. “Plus, AU didn’t seem to make a big deal about them on the campus tours etc. so I figured why not?”

Other students like AU sophomore Rain Freeman used test-optional admissions to avoid letting one mistake limit their opportunities for the next four years

“I took my ACT and I was taking it for the first time I had such a  bad day taking it, that’s when I home and applied test optional. I’ve just never been a test taker.”

Withholding her test scores also gave Freeman easier access to the AU’s Honors program, a relatively exclusive community for high-achieving applicants.

“If I hadn’t applied test-optional, I don’t think I would have gotten into the Honors program,” Freeman said. “That community is the one I fit in with. I don’t think I would have fit in with the regular crowd.”

Not everyone thinks test-optional is the way of the future. Mikala Rempe, a literature major at American, opted out of submitting her test scores when she applied. Now she wishes she had gone the more traditional route.

Rempe decided to withhold her scores because she didn’t feel like they were strong enough. Plus, she wanted the school to appraise her less quantifiable skills.

“As a creative writing major I wanted them to look at my essay more. I wanted them to see how I could write more than how I could test,” Rempe said. “I don’t think I’ll ever work in a career field where working with a test mind will be something that I value. It will always be what I can create long-term rather than what I can create under pressure.”

When Rempe first got to AU, she assumed she was less academically qualified than some of her new freshman friends. Once she found out how they scored on their standardized tests, she realized she’d underestimated her potential – and possibly her scholarship possibilities.

“When I started talking to them about test scores, I scored higher than them and didn’t send in my scores because I was so nervous, Rempe said. “I think I actually might have gotten more merit-based scores if I would have sent in my scores. I’m not happy with my choice.”

Grauman counters this logic, suggesting that merit aid takes into account the available factors, not the absence of those factors.

“Scholarship offers are made based on the strength of a student’s academic record and that alone,” Grauman said in an email. “This includes rigor of curriculum, overall school reported grade point average, and standardized testing.”

Feldmeier, on the other hand, is happy she withheld her scores. 

“I think I could have gotten in,” Feldmeier said. “My scores fell in the range that was suggested but I wanted my extracurriculars and actual grades to outshine them. I’m happy with the choice regardless.”

Even if some schools reject the test-optional route, all should consider the possibility, Schaeffer said.

“We think that schools need to have admissions processes that match with their missions and the type of kids they want to recruit,” Schaeffer said. “There is no one size that fits all ends.”


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