'Test-Optional' Sound Too Good to Be True Because It Is

Choosing not to require the exam of all students bypasses a valid and reliable measure of college readiness.

By + More

Kathryn Juric is vice president of the College Board's SAT program.

Online learning, STEM education, anti-bullying initiatives—what else is topping 2012's trend lists in the education sector?

According to some headlines, "test-optional" colleges—those that do not require an entrance exam as part of the application process—are the next big thing.

But is test-optional a growing trend, or just a bunch of hype—a deal that is too good to be true?

The buzz revolves around an updated list of 800 test-optional schools released recently by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing ("FairTest"), an organization that opposes standardized testing without reservation. While the numbers are eye-catching, the list is both problematic and misleading to students and families. Before high school students consider forgoing the SAT, it is critical that they know the facts.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Most of the schools on the FairTest list are actually specialized schools for which the SAT was not created. In other words, students interested in a traditional four-year college education are not going to find that at the 800 schools that do not require test scores. Indeed, an overwhelming majority—more than 95 percent—of four-year not-for-profit schools still requires a standardized test score as part of their application process. And at many test-optional schools, terms and conditions apply.

For example, some of the most competitive (and publicized) schools on the FairTest list have policies that are actually "test flexible," which means they still require students to submit standardized test results but give them a wider range of exams from which to choose. Many others are only test-optional if students meet a certain GPA and/or class rank.

Even at schools that call themselves test-optional, the implementation of the policy and student behavior indicates the practice is not as pervasive as it might seem. The majority of applicants continue to send scores to these colleges, and most test-optional institutions still require scores for purposes of academic counseling and merit aid.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Those who commend test-optional policies are typically critical of the SAT and other standardized tests because they believe that a successful score is dependent on a student's socio-economic background and ability to afford expensive test prep courses.

But research shows that expensive coaching has little impact on scores. For example, a 2009 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling indicated that prep courses improved SAT scores by an average of just 10 to 20 points in math and 5 to 10 points in critical reading. Research shows these small increases in scores can be achieved just by taking the test a second time.

The SAT tests the knowledge and skills students acquire as part of a rigorous high school curriculum. Students who perform best on the exam are those who complete a core curriculum and pursue the most rigorous coursework—this is true across all racial and socio-economic lines. Discrepancies in scores between students of various socio-economic backgrounds reflect the unfortunate reality that schools across the country continue to be unequal in quality.

[See the U.S. News Best Colleges.]

Such inequities are not limited to SAT scores. For instance, the percentages of students reporting an "A" GPA or completing core high school course work increases with family income, and it's well-documented that high school and college graduation rates vary by socioeconomic factors including both family income and parental education.

By focusing the conversation—indeed, scapegoating—standardized exams, testing critics distract from the broader conversation about what needs to be done to ensure every student has access to quality schools, teachers, and curriculum.

[See the U.S. News Best High Schools.]

The SAT, when coupled with high school GPA, serves as the strongest predictor of college success—stronger than either element alone. The SAT also helps mitigate the effect of high school grade inflation by providing admission officers with a standardized measure by which to compare applicants, the majority of whom are likely to be "A" students.