Just How ‘Optional’ are the SAT/ACT for College Admissions?

Just How ‘Optional’ are the SAT/ACT for College Admissions? (Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images)

High schoolers applying to college during the pandemic face a difficult decision: Do I take the SAT/ACT or skip it? Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT can be a major hurdle for students. And in response to the COVID-19 pandemic many universities have opted to make testing optional for applicants

For Jasmine Jusino, a guidance counselor at LaGuardia High School in New York City, helping students find the right path is complicated — especially when it comes to standardized testing. As the new school year approaches, she sat down with YR Media reporter Iris Santalucia to discuss how the pandemic is changing the already difficult process of college apps.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length. 

Iris Santalucia: What are the greatest differences that you’ve noticed between the test-optional process and the test-mandated one? 

Jasmine Jusino: Even prior to the pandemic, there were a lot of schools that were test optional — so much so that there’s a whole list. If you go to FairTest.org, there’s a list that’s updated regularly to identify the schools that are test-optional. So the biggest difference I see is that people are worried about whether or not they qualify into certain programs if they don’t submit their test scores.

IS: What do you think the upsides are and the downsides of requiring the SAT for college applications?

JJ: I guess the upside of requiring it is that the test score has been used to identify students who qualify for certain merit scholarships. I feel like it’s more of a downside to require the SAT score because it becomes a barrier for some students who are not great test takers or don’t have the same type of access to test prep. The knee jerk reaction is like, “OK, so make test prep accessible.” But there’s so much more to that. If you’re offering something that’s at school — even free — can all the students stay or do other students need to leave to go take care of children or younger siblings or work? Do they have transportation to come?

Now, there are schools that were traditionally test optional that have changed their policy since the pandemic. In the fall, if you went to an information session, the schools [were] saying, “Oh, we’re test-optional. So don’t let the test be a barrier to applying.” Now that the acceptances have been received and our school’s done reporting on those statistics — and I’ve only reviewed that for three schools — still more offers were made to students who provided a test score. So it didn’t seem like it worked out to be optional.

IS: So what are the benefits of taking the SAT for students applying to a college? I’m a rising senior, so I’m wondering about taking the SAT. Would extracurriculars and doing a lot of other stuff benefit me enough that it outweighs the need for the SAT?

JJ: I feel like you’re not going to find the direct answer to that from anyone. I think the more conservative route would be to take the exam as well as possible and determine whether or not you want to submit the score. In general, it still is more beneficial to have a high score. But we know that there’s a lot of variables that go into testing outcomes.

There is a qualitative difference to education that cannot always be captured by a standardized measure like an SAT, like an AP test. If you’re going to evaluate a candidate — let’s make believe they have a 1590 — as opposed to a person that doesn’t have a score at all and yet has all of these really interesting, involved extracurriculars that show initiative, leadership capabilities … is it comparable? How can you compare that?

And the colleges do look at each and all of the component parts: test scores, extracurriculars, rigor of the plan of study in high school. But I think ultimately there is a grey area on what makes the final cut. And so I think everybody’s trying to find out. So they can make better informed choices — not only on where to apply, but all of the educational choices leading up to applying. 

IS: What do you think needs to change or be modified so that education becomes less of a ranking system? Because there are so many students that are under pressure, especially during a pandemic, and the SATs can be something else that’s adding on to that pressure.

JJ: I think part of it has to be in adjusting people’s expectations. Don’t get caught up in terms of feeling like if you didn’t go to one of these top 25 schools, that you’re going to have bad life outcomes. Certainly go to campuses, get the feel of campuses. Talk to the admissions office, of course, but talk to students about their lived experiences there.

There’s an aspect of college that’s for career preparation. And then there’s an aspect of it that’s for personal development — to just really engage in your interests and meet other people. So I feel like it’s important just to see it as more fluid than a destiny.

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