When undergraduate applicants to Columbia and Barnard begin their Common Apps this fall, they will be given the option—for the first time in recent history—to decline to submit standardized test scores with their application.
In late May, the University announced a test-optional policy for first-year applicants during the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, citing widespread cancellations of standardized tests including the SAT and ACT due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the revised policy, applicants whose test-taking plans have been jettisoned by the pandemic will be able to submit applications without test scores; those with test scores will be able to decide whether to submit them, though they are encouraged to do so.
While Columbia’s website stresses that the policy will apply exclusively to the upcoming admissions cycle, the change begs a more farsighted conversation about the future of standardized tests in Columbia admissions.
Hifza Shaukat, a Columbia College senior, has seen the impacts of standardized tests on admissions firsthand. At her Brooklyn high school, test-prep materials were scant. Shaukat and others at her high school often had to prepare independently for the SAT and ACT. Even then, she is unsure whether she would have submitted her scores at all if a test-optional policy had been in place at the time she applied.
“It was a really deep struggle,” she says of her testing experience. “The issue with New York City public schools is you have to do everything on your own, especially if you’re low-income, and you have to push yourself to seek out outside opportunities that you may not necessarily know of.”
Shaukat has become a mentor for students at her former high school, providing advice and support for her mentees—mostly first-generation, low-income students—as they apply to college.
Students like Shaukat and her mentees, in addition to having limited access to test-prep materials, often do not have the time to study on their own and the means to afford multiple sittings of the tests. These factors often hinder the test-taker’s performance, says Erika Kitzmiller, a professor of education at Barnard who was once a first-generation student herself.
Numerous studies have identified closer links between test scores and socioeconomic factors than between test scores and academic performance. For this reason, Chandler Miranda, also a professor of education at Barnard, calls standardized tests “gatekeeping tests.”
Those gates to higher education only stand to become more challenging to break through for first-generation, low-income students in the coming years. While we are only just beginning to understand the full extent of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact, several studies and datasets have shown that the virus disproportionately affects those who are low-income or members of racial and ethnic minority groups, for whom access to college, and especially to elite institutions, has historically been an issue.
Admissions representatives from Smith College, Colorado College, and Union College—all selective schools that have been test-optional since before the pandemic—report that this could be the right moment for universities to reevaluate their use of standardized tests in the admissions process—not just for the upcoming application cycle but for future years as well.
Nikki Chambers is a graduate of Teachers College who worked for Barnard admissions for six years and is now a Smith admissions officer and counselor to applicants from New York. She is hopeful that other institutions that implement test-optional policies will be able to see results like that of Smith, which has not required standardized testings since 2006 after a yearlong study conducted by the college.
The study revealed that “students, and disproportionately students of color, thought testing was a barrier to applying to Smith,” Chambers says. Removing that barrier has allowed Smith “to increase the percentage of underrepresented students in the applicant pool and in the class.”
Similar research by a senior at Union—cited in an online post to the college’s website by Matthew Malatesta, Union’s vice president for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment—”found that students who submitted test scores with their applications performed no better at Union than students who did not, when controlling for high school GPA and/or rank.”
Matt Bonser, director of admissions at Colorado College, which adopted a test-optional policy in 2019 after about a decade of a test-flexible policy that required standardized tests but gave applicants flexibility about which tests they chose to submit, has similar predictions for the two classes of Colorado College students admitted under the test-optional policy. About 28 percent of the most recently admitted class opted not to submit test scores.
Bosner says that during the year prior to implementing the test-optional policy, faculty “talk[ed] about the role of testing in a student’s experience as well as its predictive value—or frankly, lack thereof.”
This lack of “predictive value” of the SAT and ACT is often cited by the more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities that had test-optional policies in place before the pandemic.
Miranda says institutions like Columbia should consider that “there’s significant evidence that while the [SAT] was developed to indicate college readiness, it is a much better indicator of socioeconomic status and educational opportunities”—disparities that she foresees becoming more pronounced during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
For Miranda, who researches the ways in which standardized testing poses barriers to higher education for immigrant teenagers and first-generation students in the United States, the possibility of college admissions transitioning away from the SAT and ACT is a “silver lining” of the pandemic.
Still, as Bonser reminds, testing policy in college admissions is a “layered” conversation. Institutions must consider the way in which test scores are used in the admissions process as well as other factors of the application.
“Certainly, the availability of standardized testing is challenging, but that’s also true of the norms and expectations of what we ask candidates to present in terms of their extracurricular resume or what it means to be engaged academically,” he says.
Randall Reback, a professor of economics at Barnard who has studied U.S. education policy, worries that colleges that go test-optional without long-term plans to invest in “getting to know the individual students—perhaps through rigorous online video interviews or college-specific real-time online quizzes”—risk relying on “outdated school reputations” as “inaccurate interpretations of how high school grades signal student aptitude.”
Ann Fleming Brown, director of admissions at Union, points out that a reading process without standardized tests may be difficult to implement at particularly selective schools like Columbia that receive large volumes of applications annually. A permanent test-optional policy could also meet resistance in those schools because of a penalty that U.S. News & World Report assigns as part of its college-ranking process to schools that don’t report all of their admitted students’ test scores. Currently, Columbia stands tied for third-best university in the nation for the second consecutive year, but it is not known how test-optional policies in 2020 will affect the future of Columbia’s ranking.
As we look at test-optional policies’ effects on admissions, we must also examine whether a permanent test-optional policy is the answer t0 the barriers faced by some applicants. Though Kitzmiller questions the validity of standardized tests, she also cautions that even a long-term test-optional policy at Columbia is not a guarantor of increased accessibility.
“It isn’t going to get rid of that many things that advantage advantaged students, like private tutors for personal essays,” Kitzmiller says. “It’s not going to get away from [high] school profiles being really important. It’s not going to get away from the fact that teacher recommendations are one of the biggest gatekeepers in college admissions, and [teachers] in private schools don’t teach as many kids as those in public school. … Just getting rid of the SAT isn’t going to dismantle all of the other advantages.”
To make things more complex, the same tests that can contribute to inaccessibility for first-generation, low-income students in a required-test system can also be their tickets to selective universities.
Jane Walsh, a Columbia College sophomore, remembers doing well on her standardized exams, With financial aid and some access to training materials at school as well as at her local bookstore, where she often practiced with test-prep books that were too expensive to purchase, Walsh was able to sit twice for the SAT, once for the ACT, and for “about 12” AP exams. Still, she believes the testing requirement is a barrier for many students.
She recalls returning to her high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, during the winter break of her first year at Columbia to help with a college ambassadorship program. When students approached her booth, she repeatedly heard three things spoken: “I’m too stupid,” “I’m too poor,” and “my parents don’t want me to go to college.”
“They were all under the impression that they were too stupid or too poor to be there. And I know for a fact that at least one student walked by who was probably more qualified to go to [Columbia] than me,” Walsh says. “If you have a bunch of students from low-income areas growing up their entire lives with no one telling them they can be smart, then these tests are not going to help that.”
Another factor that disadvantages low-income students is that many rely on jobs to keep afloat while at school. Walsh was fired from her part-time job during AP exam season after her boss accused her of putting too much focus into studying for her exams and not enough into her job. While Walsh was able to finish saving up for college applications before she lost her job, not everyone can be as lucky. As Walsh says, “If you need a job, you’re always going to pick the job over the testing.”
Choosing between the demands of testing and more immediate financial concerns is just one of the difficulties faced by students from low-income backgrounds. Walsh reflects that a lack of information and outreach from colleges as well as a public education system that teaches low-income students a skewed sense of “their place in life” were just a few of the many factors beyond testing that make higher education inaccessible to disadvantaged students
“It seems to me that if we make optional testing a hill to die on,” she says, “we also ignore some of the other problems that perhaps are more essential.”
Chambers says that it is “hard to say” in a shifting admissions landscape whether a long-term test-optional policy is ideal for Columbia and Barnard.
“We have no idea, really, what admissions is going to look like. It’s not going to look the same at Columbia—it’s going to look different,” Kitzmiller says, trying to imagine the post-pandemic future of college admissions. “We just have to think critically,” she advises, about exactly what that future will be and who it will help.
This fall, Columbia presents applicants with a choice, but the University is left with a choice of its own.