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The Role of Standardized Tests in the Coming Year
Pandemic conditions have brought a tumultuous year to the arena of standardized testing for college applications. A record number of U.S. colleges and universities became test-optional—requiring neither SAT nor ACT scores—for the recent admission season, and many have already extended this policy to the upcoming year. In addition, the College Board, which administers the SAT and tests for high school Advanced Placement courses, recently announced that it would no longer offer SAT testing in specific subjects. This leaves students, parents, and educators wondering: What role will standardized testing play in college admissions going forward? Is it still worth students’ time to prepare for and take common standardized tests? So far, the answer remains: Yes.
Throughout the application process, each candidate assembles a dossier to put their best foot forward. Academic transcripts, essays, lists of extracurricular achievements, letters of recommendation, and interviews are all ways to communicate who a student is and how well they might fit into a college community. Standardized test scores from the SAT and ACT are another way of demonstrating that a student is well prepared for the rigors of college academics. While many schools became test-optional this past year, only a few schools are test-blind. The difference is important. Test-blind schools do not look at test scores, even when they are available. Test-optional schools do not require test scores, but they will consider any scores that are submitted, alongside other application elements. With this in mind, preparing for and doing well on standardized testing continues to be an opportunity for students to signal a level of academic distinction.
For many years colleges also considered SAT subject tests as a measure of students’ aptitude for various fields of study. High scores on physics or biology subject tests, for example, benefited those applying as engineering or pre-med students. High scores on history or Spanish subject tests boosted applications for programs relating to public policy or international relations, etc. Many schools valued subject tests as an indicator of demonstrated student interest and proficiency. With subject tests no longer available, colleges are likely to put more emphasis on AP tests to show similar data.
In recent years some independent schools have shifted to offering honors classes of their own design, rather than adhering strictly to AP curricula. Nonetheless, many students taking those honors courses then do take an AP test in the subject. With the cancelling of SAT subject tests, registering and studying for AP tests becomes a higher priority. Students (and parents) often wonder whether a lower-level course with a higher grade looks better on a transcript than a higher-level course with a lower grade. The key is to take rigorous classes in subjects where students genuinely like the subject and are likely to do well.
The core theme here is that colleges like to see students challenge themselves and succeed. At least for now, standardized tests continue to be a strategic tool in that process.
Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.