With all of the nervousness and concerned that I hear from parents and counselors about standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT, I sometimes wonder if poor scorers on preliminary tests such as the PSAT or the PLAN should consider a different strategy: pass on taking the more advanced standardized tests. Concentrate on academics, extracurricular pursuits and work, if money is a concern.
Ok, that sounds crazy at first. But I see no reason to force students to take these tests if they know, in advance, that they are not likely to score high on them. This is especially true of students who seek a college based on their talents in the arts or creative pursuits. I fail to see how the ACT or the SAT, among other standardized exams, predict how an aspiring musician or actor will fare in college.
Obviously, a “no standardized tests” strategy will not work for everyone. Many schools, including the most selective national research universities, still require them. They are required for athletes who want to receive scholarships to play their sports. They are also required for any student who is serious about a military option such as a service academy or ROTC. And many schools, including test-optional colleges and universities, require the scores for merit scholarship considerations.
But the “no standardized tests” strategy can satisfy the needs of many, beyond the creatively gifted. As long as the student and parents do their home work.
First, students should, with the help of their parents, assess their academic strengths and weaknesses. Choose colleges that will encourage you to pursue interests and strengths that will also help you overcome your weaknesses. Most colleges will allow, even encourage you, to pursue interests and passions. But they will also expect you to take courses in subjects that you might not have learned nor liked in high school. These days it is more important to have as high a GPA as you can possibly earn. You want a school that will give you choices, but also help through access to the professor or other instructors when you need it.
Second, check out the list of test-optional schools available through FairTest.org. Write down schools that might appeal to you based on your desires for academic programs and instruction.
Third, go to the Admissions Web sites for these schools. Find out how students who apply without test scores are considered for scholarships. Sometimes you will need to do no extra work. Other times you might need to submit graded papers, take an interview, write additional essays in order to be considered for merit-based aid. Make sure that you have a choice of schools before you commit to a “no standardized tests” strategy. I cannot emphasize this point enough. You do not want to put all of your hopes on the decisions of a very small number of admissions offices.
Fourth, if you have clear strengths in academic subjects that you might want to pursue in college, take the AP test or the SAT Subject Test in that subject as soon as you complete the advanced course with excellence. If your passion is Biology, for example, then take the Biology AP Test as well as the Biology Subject Test. Show how much you know that subject and provide examples of your passion for it in your essays. Colleges want students who are thinking for the future about their academics and their personal interests. That information, combined with the transcript, is more important than the scores from any standardized tests.
There are so many questions about the validity of standardized tests as well as their predictive value towards success in college. For a minority of college-bound students these questions are not important. A bright, well-rounded student who reads in depth and has exceptionally strong math skills can do well on the ACT or SAT.
However, standardized tests are a bane for the vast majority of high school juniors and seniors who want to go to college. These students, in many cases, might be better off seeking schools that do not require the tests instead of paying large sums of money and devoting large amounts of time to tutors in the hopes of raising their scores by 100 points or more.
Standardized tests for college admissions have been an institution unto themselves since the SAT was launched during the 1940s. They were developed to help level the playing field among applicants to the more selective colleges so that more students who attended public schools and/or had no legacy status had a better chance for admission based on merit. However, standardized tests were introduced to the admissions process at a time when schools were allowed to discriminate among applicants without the involvement of the Federal government or other interested parties.
Today admissions processes are more open, though they are far more competitive. Financial aid, while not perfect, is better than it was after America prevailed in World War II. Standardized tests have been challenged based on considerations of equity. It’s well established that the better-educated students score higher. It’s also well established that politicians of both parties do not agree on how to make public education more equitable, and they do not agree on how to pay for equity.
The best solution for now is essentially a consumer movement. If you cannot score high on standardized tests, or if you believe that they will cause high anxiety, don’t take them if you don’t have to. As more and more college-bound students go in this direction the college admissions community will need to respond.
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