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Princeton should stay test optional, for now

<h5>Morrison Hall, home of the U. undergraduate admissions office.</h5>
<h6>Nick Donnoli / Office of Communications</h6>
Morrison Hall, home of the U. undergraduate admissions office.
Nick Donnoli / Office of Communications

Princeton has an important decision to make regarding undergraduate admissions: Should it revert to requiring a standardized test or extend its test-optional application policy through the 2022–23 admissions cycle?

Stanford’s decision to switch reflects a broader trend away from standardized testing for schools across the country, in part due to the pandemic, but also because of growing concerns about bias and disparate racial impacts in standardized tests. Black and Latino students typically have lower scores on the SAT than their white or Asian counterparts, yet research shows that those lower test scores are not indicative of future college success. Analysis from the College Board shows that standardized test scores are less effective in predicting success in college for students of color. If the tests are not accurately depicting how a significant, marginalized subset of the students are doing, should they be used at all?

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In an effort to remove bias in the process of evaluating prospective students, schools have good reason to remove these standardized tests and look at other metrics, like applicants’ high school academic record. However, research shows that grades can be subject to bias similar to that of standardized tests. So where does that leave a college admissions office?

There are no methods that are entirely immune to bias, but schools need a fair way to evaluate applicants. Princeton should continue their test-optional admissions through the 2022–23 admissions cycle and use that time to gather information and evaluate whether more permanently implementing a test-optional admissions practice is a viable option moving forward.

Schools have been working to increase their diversity, but many potential applicants with lower scores have been dissuaded from even considering certain schools. Robert Schaeffer, the executive director of the FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, claimed “the high percentages of [test score] nonsubmitters among historically underrepresented groups is particularly gratifying — clearly allowing all students to apply without ACT/SAT scores removed a significant barrier to access.”

The University of California system switched away from standardized tests permanently this fall. While some heralded the shift as an equalizer for historically disadvantaged applicants, many called the move regressive. These proponents of standardized testing claim that the admissions offices in the University of California system already knew how to correct for the bias in standardized testing, but without the SAT, it would be harder to give students from less privileged backgrounds a fair shot at getting into college.

In some ways, the test optional system works well because it gives students the opportunity to show off good test scores, if they have them. This has been especially important over the last two years, when many high schoolers had to go to great lengths to even take an SAT: Many schools canceled tests due to COVID-related concerns, meaning it was much harder to access a test site; those test sites were often far away and in unfamiliar locations. It was therefore considerably harder to get any score, much less a good one. That suggests a good argument for scrapping standardized test scores altogether, and focusing on other metrics like grades.

Every solution, including this one, brings with it complications: Although standardized tests are subject to bias, so are high school grades. The College Board and ACT argue that a combination of test scores and grades are necessary for admissions, because more affluent communities are more likely to have grade inflation, and, therefore, standardized tests provide some protection against schools that have vastly disparate grading practices. They argue that grade inflation and lack of uniformity in grading policies means that the high school GPA is not infallible, and that wealthy, predominantly white communities may have a similar advantage to before.

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Beyond that, over the last couple of years, high schools have had tremendously different COVID-mitigation strategies, access to in-person learning, curricula, and grading policies. The discrepancies mean that many students are not scoring the way they otherwise would on their high school tests or on their standardized tests. Punishing students for these circumstances would be inappropriate and unfair, so continuing this test-optional practice into the future may make sense.

College admissions offices already have to make tough decisions when it comes to admitting a relatively small number of students from unprecedentedly large pools of applicants. The pandemic gives Princeton an opportunity now to continue a study of test-optional admissions in a thoughtful way and not make a knee-jerk decision regarding standardized tests. Two years of data skewed by the pandemic will not show the entire picture for college admissions, and being able to see the results of these practices will take time.

Hopefully, the admissions office can start to see whether classes that did not require test scores still yield the types of student bodies that the admission’s office desires. If, by some metric, these classes are less successful, the admissions practices of the University can continue to develop and change. There are valid arguments both for and against standardized tests, but given longstanding claims about promoting diversity and inclusion, continuing this test-optional experiment for another year would help to shed light on the best practices for the future.

Mohan Setty-Charity is a sophomore from Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at ms99@princeton.edu.

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