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Why The US Is Making Tests Like SAT, ACT Optional

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Yocket Editorial Team
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With many universities in the US and other countries making some of the standardised tests optional, international students are often confused whether they should take these tests or file their admissions applications without it.

Admission tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), American College Testing (ACT), Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) are optional for international students at many universities abroad and this trend has picked up post pandemic.

Key Highlights

  • About 1,800 colleges across the US are currently test-optional including Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University.
  • Market research suggests that nearly half of the four-year colleges in the US are test optional.
  • Testing agencies such as the College Board, Education Testing Service and GMAC also made amends to their test delivery, evaluation and other aspects.

About 1,800 colleges and universities across the US are currently test-optional including well-known universities such as Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University. Market research suggests that nearly half of the four-year colleges in the US are test optional.

As students and testing agencies struggled to give and take these tests due to travel restrictions and closure of test centres, many such as Yale, Pennsylvania, and Tufts decided to go test-optional after the pandemic. However, some universities, such as MIT have reverted to their previous policy of making the SAT and ACT mandatory.

Do Standardised Tests Help?

A recent survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) featuring responses from 1,800 students shows that over 50% of aspiring study abroad students believe that such tests for admissions boost “reliability, fairness, and transparency in evaluating graduate business school candidates.”

With pandemic-induced restrictions forcing universities to adapt to online teaching, assessment and other methods, testing agencies such as the College Board, Education Testing Service and GMAC also made amends to their test delivery, evaluation and other aspects.

Some experts believe that since India has multiple assessment methods, making tests such as the SAT, ACT would enable Indian applicants to exhibit their potential differently, without having to rely on their school or grades and standardised test scores.

However, international candidates must also be aware that they need to prepare for the requirements of different US universities as per their policies as some of them still accept SAT, ACT scores. Applicants must also focus on other aspects of the admission process such as letters of recommendation, statement of purpose etc.

According to the 2019 Ad Hoc Committee on International Admissions Testing Report, Advocacy and Outreach, International ACAC, the most pressing issues regarding admissions testing for international students are access, equity, test security and reliability. “Test optional is a maze for international students, which is a major barrier,” it says.

Impact On International Students

So how does making tests such as the SAT and ACT impact international student enrollments in American universities?

In response to COVID-19 and the challenges associated with access to SAT and Act Tests, many campuses chose to adopt test-optional admissions for one or two years. Others, like the California state system, have made the transition away from standardized tests permanent.

According to Lynn Pasquerella, President, American Association of Colleges and Universities, a move away from requiring SAT and ACT scores, “does not always apply to international students.”

For instance, Bucknell University adopted a test-optional policy as a five-year pilot, but the policy applies only to domestic students. “The rationale is that the standardised tests provide verification of credentials for students in areas that are unfamiliar to admission officers and offer greater insights into English language proficiency.”

Other institutions, like the University of Denver, which went test optional, had already adopted a policy of requiring only students who had attended American-style schools to submit scores because it was deemed unfair to impose a US-centric test on students studying under a vastly different system. And places like Marquette have long been test optional for international students, but only recently became test optional for domestic students.

“The issue comes down to whether admissions staff are equipped to assess transcripts based on transcripts and other data, in the absence of standardised tests,” says Pasquerella.

The Association for College Admission Counselling has argued that lack of access to SAT/ACT testing by international students due to the number of testing centres, available dates, and costs, including transportation costs to take the test, have the potential to adversely impact international students. “Making admission tests optional has driven up the number of applications overall, especially among highly selective institutions,” she adds.

The reduction in testing centres and testing dates during COVID-19 had an impact on international students from many countries. Making the admission test optional creates more equitable access to Indian students who have financial constraints and whose academic potential is not accurately reflected by standardised test scores, believes Pasquerella.  

How COVID-19 Played A Role

The pandemic played a major role in making tests optional. Testing centres were closed and students were unable to submit scores. Rather than drastically limit the number of applicants, colleges and universities piloted test-optional policies. The fairness of the tests had already been challenged based on racial and economic disparities that provided an unfair advantage to those who could afford expensive test preparation or who lived in school districts with ample funding.   

What Indian Students Should Focus On

Admission offices look at transcripts, letters of recommendation, and samples of student work. It is helpful to have e-portfolios containing artefacts of students’ authentic work that demonstrates the capacity to grapple with increasingly complex problems, advises Pasquerella.

GRE/GMAT Waiver

Many institutions have also waived off the GRE and GMAT tests for international students in destinations such as the US, the UK and Canada. Experts feel this is because unlike undergraduate schools, graduate schools can get more information to assess and evaluate applicants than undergraduate admissions counsellors and officials. In a lot of cases, students can add any additional skills they have acquired through internships or jobs they might have undertaken.

On the flipside, with every country having different methods of grading and evaluation of students, having scores of tests such as the GRE and GMAT can actually help universities while screening applications from potential international students.