Poor Test Results No Problem If You Ignore Them

By Nancy Almasi

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had a real and persistent impact on our children’s education. Learning loss continues to be the subject of daily news reports, with SAT and ACT test scores at an all-time low. Overall, math and reading scores on standardized tests are at their lowest level in decades and the college admissions process was thrown into a tailspin when lockdown regulations made taking the traditional SAT and ACT tests difficult.

Colleges and universities are now pivoting away from standardized tests by making SAT and ACT scores optional when it comes to admissions. Virginia colleges and universities have been, for the most part, ahead of the trend:

  • University of Virginia – Will make the SAT, ACT, AP, and IB tests optional beginning in the 2024-2025 academic year.
  • Virginia Tech – Will make the SAT and ACT tests optional for admissions beginning in 2025.
  • College of William and Mary – Has been test-optional since 2020
  • Virginia Commonwealth University – Test optional unless applicants are applying for the Honors College program or the Guaranteed Admissions Program.
  • George Mason University –  Has been test optional since 2007 but has other requirements in lieu of SAT or ACT scores such as grade point average, the number of rigorous honors or AP classes taken, and extracurricular activities.
  • James Madison University – No longer requires the SAT nor ACT scores for admission.
  • Hampton University – This HBCU makes submitting standardized scores optional if the applicant has a minimum of 3.30 GPA or is in the top 10% of his or her high school class. However, a student who wishes to apply for a merit-based scholarship must submit SAT or ACT test scores.
  • Hollins University – The small, private, liberal arts women’s college (and the author’s alma mater) is test optional.

To meet “equity goals,” it is easy to see the appeal of making the test optional. Colleges and universities naturally want to increase their enrollment numbers. Making tests optional increases the pool of applicants from students from low-income communities who cannot afford the SAT prep books or expensive classes or tutors to help them prepare for these once-critical tests. It also relieves some of the political pressure from those who believe the SAT and the ACT are biased towards those who are wealthy and white.

Parents and students are relieved to have one less task on their long “to-do” list for college applications. Students who believe their SAT or ACT scores do not accurately represent their academic ability feel they can now aspire to attend schools that they previously felt were out of their reach.

While Virginia schools are following the same path as higher education institutions elsewhere, is throwing out the standardized college admissions tests the best way to determine if a school is admitting students who are ready for college-level work?

Frederick Hess, Senior Fellow, and Director of Education Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, argues (Forbes magazine, March 2022) that student transcripts are not always an accurate indicator of rigor or proficiency in a subject. Why aren’t transcripts accurate? College admissions offices would have to rely more upon letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and essays – all of which are subjective and can be assisted by schools, parents, or pricy consultants.

The SAT and ACT, on the other hand, are an objective means of assessing a student’s academic potential in college. This contradicts the argument that the tests breed inequity. For those who claim that the SAT and ACT are elitist and racist, the history behind the standardized tests says otherwise. Ivy League colleges, for instance, traditionally used to admit students based on their wealth and position rather than academic merit. In 1933 Harvard University President James Conant proposed putting together an assessment that would make admissions available to anyone who could pass the test. This test became the forerunner of the SAT and forever opened academic opportunities to immigrants, minorities, and the low income. Ironically, Harvard will make the SAT and the ACT optional in 2027.

Despite the aspirational goals of those who believe that the admissions process can be made more inclusive by using factors other than standardized tests, there is great peril in relying upon the gut feelings of admissions administrators. In fact, there is sound economic research noting that the more subjective the criteria, the more open to discrimination the process becomes.

Academic mismatch is also a very real problem when the process is driven by a desire to meet certain predetermined quotas. While there is strong academic research on both sides of the “mismatch” debate, there is no question that ridding the objective testing criteria from the process will lower the information available to students as they decide the best fit for their academic abilities. In turn, more students are likely to land in an academic environment to which they are unaccustomed or unprepared in order to meet admissions goals. This, in turn, can crush a student’s psyche as well as put them and their families under the pressure of unnecessary debt if an unprepared student chooses to drop out.

How well students who submit SAT or ACT scores do in college versus those who do not will be an interesting study.  But, as colleges in Virginia abandon these tests, they should consider the potentially negative impact this decision could have on those they hope to help.

Sadly, eliminating the standardized test is just one more means of watering down education to achieve equity and attendance goals that are hard to meet as our public schools continue to struggle academically. Greater effort should be placed on improving our educational system at the elementary and secondary levels, especially in our poor and minority communities, rather than focusing on an untested subjective college admittance system. The real answer for our colleges and universities is for our communities to stop ignoring the educational crisis that was exposed and worsened during the pandemic!

Nancy Almasi is a researcher at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, which first published this commentary.  She may be reached at Nancy@thomasjeffersoninst.org

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


18 responses to “Poor Test Results No Problem If You Ignore Them”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Great read. If schools know SATs don’t count, learning will be affected, just a theory. But in three to five years it will become a research question. My hypothesis is that it will not be good. This goes for private schools as well.

  2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Great read. If schools know SATs don’t count, learning will be affected, just a theory. But in three to five years it will become a research question. My hypothesis is that it will not be good. This goes for private schools as well.

  3. Fred Costello Avatar
    Fred Costello

    If colleges use SAT scores for accepting students, they will have fewer enrollees, so they will lose income. They profit from remedial courses.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “Making tests optional increases the pool of applicants from students from low-income communities who cannot afford the SAT prep books or expensive classes or tutors to help them prepare for these once-critical tests. It also relieves some of the political pressure from those who believe the SAT and the ACT are biased towards those who are wealthy and white.”

    This “belief” is true as the first argument leads to the second. This piece provides no evidence that this is not true. Instead, it jumps to the following argument while ignoring this one…

    “The SAT and ACT, on the other hand, are an objective means of assessing a student’s academic potential in college. This contradicts the argument that the tests breed inequity.”

    This argument may contradict the first but it does not invalidate that argument.

    “For those who claim that the SAT and ACT are elitist and racist, the history behind the standardized tests says otherwise”

    Just because the test has its origins in attempting to level the playing field does not mean it hasn’t evolved to just another barrier to success for the less advantaged.

    The recognition that the SAT is biased is not new nor is the drive to move away from it in college admissions. Let College Board die already. We will all be better off.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      “Let College Board die already.”
      No chance. They collected 1.4 billion dollars last year. They have already figured out the pivot. PSAT and AP exams. The public dollars from the public schools are much steadier stream of money.

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        The pivot is “Landscape.”
        Landscape is the successor to the “Adversity Index.”
        College Board and the “elite” schools were planning for SFFA for years, and they will continue to break the law, INTENTIONALLY, until stopped, and then they will do it in a different way. DEI is a religion because it is an outgrowth of Marxism, and the academics are, when you get to the bottom of it, Marxists – DEI, CRT, ESG, SEL, “sustainability” – all of it – re-packaged Marxism.

        Ultimately, you either believe Man is God, or God is God. I think it is pretty clear Man as God is a failure – we need to get back to defending Western Civ. A gift. Ordered liberty.

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Landscape. That is a new one to me. Interesting read on that program. The backdoor to affirmative action.

          1. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            UVA in a FOIA screwed up and let me sew a bland reference to “Landscape” in the initial screening of the applicants. I am sure it was by mistake because it took me 3 tries to get there, but the printing reveals it was originally produced.
            I then started pulling the string and UVA Admissions quit cooperating. For Class of 2026 I got all the SAT/in and out of State/ legacy, race, etc to show the incredible amount of reverse discrimination. But NO COOPERATION for Class of 2027…The whole reason to do away with the SAT is because it proves the discrimination – so UVA and the other “elites” will quit creating evidence of their law-breaking by stopping the SAT.
            So, how do the “elites” cheat in the “holistic” scam? Landscape.
            Here is the crucial question for the holistic review BS – take my daughter at Deep Run High School and plug in different zip codes – 23226, 23229, 23233, 23059 and 23060 and see if different scores result…
            You can do a similar thing by changing the schools. Landscape tilts the field to get a higher level of “marginalized” surviving the first cut. I would like to see the score assigned by zip code. Any chance the poorer, more minority the zip, the higher the score?
            The BOV should demand SATs and it should not require another year of Youngkin appointees. While Trump gets prosecuted for being Trump, Supreme Court clerk and lawyer Jim Ryan breaks the law – INTENTIONALLY – anybody care? Oh, that’s right, Cville is a sanctuary city. I guess that shows why the anti-Klan laws aren’t enforced when their team does it – see 18.2-420 thru 18.2-423.1 – https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title18.2/chapter9/section18.2-420/
            Those should be enforced. Heather Heyer would not have died if Antifa had been called out.
            If interested, see the 2 statutes preceding on picketing – the Supreme Court justices in VA should not have had to live with that.

            Are we a society of laws or not? It is a disgrace, and UVA leads the pack in hypocrisy – truly, truly disgusting. Ryan and all Deans must go.

          2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
            James Wyatt Whitehead

            “Are we a society of laws or not?”
            A quaint notion from a long time back. Landscape will produce a college student body that will tear down the rest of the brick and mortar of what we have built in the last 250 years. See Tehran 1979.

          3. how_it_works Avatar

            All the Home Depots around here have the copper wire locked up. Draw your own conclusions….

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            saw other items like garage floor resin with RFID tags on them…

            The folks at our southern border are fleeing countries that have no law and order…

            they think it is better here!

          5. Nor would Heyer have died if C’ville cops had been doing their job and prevented a mob from surrounding cars in an intersection about 2 blocks from police HQ.

            If C’ville had blocked side street access with trucks and busses as was proposed and rejected before they decided on saw horses and school crossing guards who felt threatened and abandoned their posts Fields could not have been mistakenly on that street in his confusion trying to leave town. There is no doubt downtown C’ville is confusing, even to some of us who have driven there for decades.

          6. walter smith Avatar
            walter smith

            While we are at it…the Morgan Bettinger fiasco also would not have happened with the illegal blocking of the street…
            So let’s see…
            if you are a fraternity that rents tables for a dirty rush function, UVA will ask the rental company that is seeking to collect a debt from a different fraternity for all of the rental records and put the “dirty rush” fraternity on a social suspension, but will refuse to prosecute a fraternity that refuses to cooperate in an investigation, and one of those members later kills 3 people…nothing to see here!
            Is there a pattern discernible in who gets to break laws without punishment?

  5. Yesterday the first report cards, which are now called “Progress Reports” went out for the first quarter of the year, which is now called MP1, for Marking Period 1.

    Arlington (Fairfax, and I believe much of Virginia) has now adopted “standards based” grading, directly related to the Standards of Learning (https://www.teacherease.com/app/standards/StandardTreeView?sid=1644&state=VA) , the detailed list of what the state of
    Virginia wants children to know in each grade.

    Standards of Learning based instruction has its hilarious moments, because it is a one size fits all bureaucratic solution,

    Two examples.

    First, each year children are instructed in subjects based on what they are assumed to have learned before in Virginia schools. 6th grade geography materials, in explaining about the 5 regions of Virginia (Tidewater/Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateau) refer to the “Fall Line,” a line between the Piedmont and the Tidewater where the altitude actually drops, and there are a number of waterfalls. But it’s just a reference. No one explains the Fall Line, and the over-packed standards based instruction does not take time to explain it. If you ask administrators about this they will say “Students are taught about the Fall Line in 4th grade.”

    And they are – that is if they were Virginia students in the 4th grade. But the percentage of 6th grade public school students in Virginia who went to school in Virginia in the 4th grade, especially in northern Virginia, is not 100%, not even 90%, and not even in many schools 80%.

    Another example: Virginia has certain things it is desperate to teach its students, but it has no appropriate materials to do so. So it uses inappropriate materials. For instance, 6th graders in Fairfax are forced to watch this Archeology Channel video ( https://www.archaeologychannel.org/video-main-menu/video-guide-main/video-guide-summary/256-ice-age-discoveries-new-evidence ) about Cactus Hill, the site where an early primitive settlement was found in Virginia that may date back to 16,000 BC. It’s almost 30 minutes long, dry, and boring, and almost no 6th graders pay attention to it when it is shown to them.

    Besides boring, mind-deadening, and bureaucratically constructed standards of learning and materials, elementary schools in Virginia now have dropped traditional grades (A, B, C, D, F, or a 4.0 system, or a system based on 100% points), parents now receive a
    4 page “progress report” with comments that tells parents for each
    “standard of learning” whether the student has mastered the topic, is approaching mastering the topic, or has not mastered it. Students are currently in many cases being subjected to an hour long presentation (in lieu of actual teaching in a real topic) on standards based grading. I watched one such presentation where 5th grade students sighed and booed when they learned that this would mean no more honor rolls and no more dean’s lists, no award for excellence and achievement.

    This grading system is expected to be extended to middle schools next year.

    In itself, “grades” telling parents that students have mastered a topic, are moving toward mastering it, or have failed to master it, are not bad. Proponents say this system is about the delta, the change, reporting that a student is moving toward knowing what they need to know, grading them on whether they improve, not on what they know simply, or how they place in relation to what the average student in Virginia, the nation, or their class, knows. It also allows teachers to give deeply deficient students performing below grade level – 6th graders for example reading at a 3rd grade level – a “middling” grade of “approaching” mastering a subject, if they make any progress at all.

    It’s hard not to realize that it is also a system to eliminate all the traditional awards and honors for exemplary achievement.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “Harvard University, founded in 1636, claims to be “the oldest institution of higher education in the United States”.

    “Standardized tests have been a part of American education since the mid-1800s. Their use skyrocketed after 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated annual testing in all 50 states.”

    However did they manage?

    ** gee, mid-1800s. Wonder if they were like swim tests?

  7. vicnicholls Avatar

    Why is ODU (and even NSU or Christopher Newport) always left out of this? They represent about the biggest in Hampton Roads.

    1. Good question.

  8. Did anyone notice the dates on which universities/colleges went test optional? Most of these have been test optional for years. COVID had nothing to do with it.

Leave a Reply