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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

ZHAO: The SAT should never—ever— be optional

Despite vehement push against it, standardized test scores should still remain an essential aspect of the college admissions process.
Vanderbilt student studying with laptop. (Hustler Multimedia)

We all know that the College Board has been the scapegoat for the anger and disgruntlement of high schoolers worldwide this past year—and on many occasions, this frustration is justified. Believe me, I still harbor bitter resentment towards the College Board’s brilliant idea of evaluating a high schooler’s understanding of the intricacies of European hegemony and monarchical dynamics using a single AP written-response question. Darling, you need to evaluate yourself, not me. 

But I digress. For almost three-quarters of a century, the SAT has been a rite of passage for many students keen on pursuing higher education. As the initial gateway to universities across the nation, examinations are perceived by higher institutions as the first determinant of college readiness and preparedness in students due to its standardization and popularity. However, recent events have disrupted this convention; the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic heralded a renewed stream of colleges who disavowed the testing requirement, instead opting for a test-optional policy. I applaud universities for taking such a step. This recourse is reasonable because it possesses the proper foresight of ensuring that students who do not have the capacity to travel to test sites are at an even playing field. 

However, test-optional admissions should not be the norm. While many future generations of potential college-bound students may rejoice in rapturous gratitude, I worry that it will set a dangerous precedent. If the policy is here to stay, it will profoundly do both the student and the institution a disfavor. We can make our grievances against tests known, but it does not change the intrinsic fact that a holistic review of students’ credentials must include their test scores. 

For one, there is an intentional reason behind synonymizing examinations with “standardized tests”: they are meant to act as a bridge to account for the innumerable number of education systems in the United States. A grade of A+ at a nationally-accoladed magnet school is fundamentally different from an A+ at a traditional public high school. A 3.5 GPA at a private science and technology academy will be measured differently than a 4.0 GPA at a vocational school. The establishment of a standardized test is a method that attempts to reconcile these vast differences. A lack of standardization will ultimately hold universities at a stranglehold because a lack of test scores lacks dependable, objective, and validating metrics. However much derision the SAT may receive, it does not taint the fact that your test score remains as one of the only object pieces of information in your college application. 

And yes, despite mainstream commentary on the inaccuracy of the SAT to predict college performance, test scores still have their own merits. While GPA may be a more consistent indicator of college success, school grades are sometimes artificially inflated—oftentimes in predominantly-affluent communities (and ironically, proponents for ridding test scores should also be advocating for the eradication of the GPA). Standardized tests serve as a corroborator for the accuracy and legitimacy of the grades. In a world where people can blatantly spew falsehoods on college applications, test scores offer a slight assurance. For instance, if GPA and test scores differ dramatically, then it raises some red flags.  

But perhaps one reason why traction for test-optional policies is gaining momentum is that the term “test-optional” is somewhat misleading; in fact, there are unstated disadvantages to abstaining from submitting a test score in the first place. According to College Vine, “students who applied to a test-optional school who submitted scores above the 25th percentile were accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who applied without submitting scores.” This leads us to the conversation on the pervasive misconception that has arisen: that test-optional schools provide an easier admission path. This is far from the truth. Take the University of Chicago, for instance. Despite implementing the test-optional policy back in 2018, the admission rate dropped from 7.2 percent to 5.9 percent. The average SAT score also increased by 15 points. This shows that eliminating the test score requirement has little to no impact in opening universities to a wider, diverse class of students—especially since students from wealthier backgrounds are statistically more inclined to submit test scores in test-optional settings. 

This leads me to address the elephant in the room. It is true that students from wealthier backgrounds disproportionately score higher than financially-disadvantaged students—and as a first-generation low-income student (or FGLI), I can confidently attest to this phenomenon. There are several reasons as to why this is the case: wealthy students can afford the academic resources to do well and can afford to take the test multiple times. While the arguments made to critique standardized exams for the economic disparities are valid, the caveat is that revoking the test requirement is not the “end-all-be-all” solution. Diluting the SAT only serves to diminish the relatively few objective admissions criteria in an applicant’s portfolio. A test-optional policy is merely a stopgap to put aside the problem for later. Plus, it also disenfranchises low-income students who are satisfied that their scores are a testament to their hard work and motivation. It is perpetuating the implicit notion that these students cannot do well compared to their counterparts when standardized tests can point out talented FGLI students. 

As FGLI student leaders continue to innovate and create, universities must continue to pave a landscape that fosters diversity. On the surface, it does seem as if the statistics behind test scores are proof that schools should go test-optional to cater to diversity. However, think about it this way. Since wealthy students statistically do well, it would logically make sense that wealthy students will be submitting test scores to test-optional schools on a higher scale than their [less wealthy?] counterparts—and educators are indeed concerned with this phenomena. Because an extra piece of objective information to bolster your credentials is always better than none, wealthy students still get more of an advantage. Therefore, a test-optional policy is technically counterintuitive to fostering diversity, right?

Thus, the solution is not to get rid of the exam. Rather, reforming the exam is the answer. 

University of Michigan professor of public policy Susan Dynarski presents a solution to the economic gap in test-takers: SAT For All. She believes that a universal requirement for school boards to prescribe the SAT for free during the school day will eliminate many of the hassles that come with taking the exam at a designating testing site (I suspect the legislation may be introduced as an additional clause to the No Child Left Behind Act). To take it a step further, eliminating the cost of testing altogether for financially disadvantaged students will eliminate some of the most insurmountable obstacles that hinder students from taking the exam more than once or twice.  

And yes, reforming the standardized test system means fortifying it against lucrative cheating and bribing, as with the case of the notorious actress Lori Loughlin. Actor Felicity Huffman was also reported to have bribed a proctor $15,000 to correct her daughter’s SAT exam. Although there is no clear-cut solution to prevent such kinds of fraud in the future, the first step is for the College Board to implement stricter guidelines on how special accommodations should be made as well as establishing stricter parameters around identity verification. Another way to prevent future scandals is to place more stringent sets of guidelines when it comes to selecting proctors (schools are given the privilege to select them). Although the scandal greatly fractured the reputation of the company, it is also important to remember that if the SAT is purely a litmus test for wealth and not intelligence and academic prowess, then Lori Loughlin would not have gone to the extent she had to get her daughters into USC

By no means is a score the complete representation of a student’s aptitude. That is far from the case. 

Tests should never be the totem pole around which the admissions process revolves. A mere number can never entirely and authentically encapsulate the dossier of success of a student. However, abolishing testing requirements translates to a loss of a critical and objective component to assess how well the student will integrate into the institution’s academic atmosphere. 

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About the Contributor
Stanley Zhao
Stanley Zhao, Former Opinion Copy Editor
Stanley Zhao ('24) is from New York City. He is studying public policy, economics and Chinese in the College of Arts and Science. In his spare time, he loves admiring works of architecture, snacking on prawn chips, cheering for the NY Knicks and appreciating Beyonce & 2Pac in all their glory. He also doesn't like the boba in bubble tea all that much. You can reach him at .
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Comments (9)

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2 years ago

Affirmative Action discriminates against more students than the SAT or the ACT.

3 years ago

I think the key issue with the SAT is that it’s not that great of a predictor of college success. A study at UChicago found that test scores aren’t great predictors of success, but high school GPAs are. The SAT ought to be reformed to be a test where your score is dependent on how well you know the test taking strategies but rather a test that truly tests your knowledge on a subject. In short, it should be less like the SAT and more like an AP exam. Also, standardized test scores can remain a part of the college admissions process, but test scores should be devalued in the process since they’re clearly not accurate indicators of students’ potential success.

3 years ago
Reply to  Laila

He addressed this. If every college was test optional, high schools would WILDLY inflate grades and GPA would become an absolutely worthless metric and even more imbalanced across schools.

3 years ago

“… it is also important to remember that if the SAT is purely a litmus test for wealth and not intelligence and academic prowess, then Lori Loughlin would not have gone to the extent she had to get her daughters into USC.”
I was disappointed by the false binary in this line of argument. I don’t think anyone is suggesting the SAT is “purely” measuring wealth—or even that must be measuring *either* wealth or intelligence. We know that there are many wealthy AND intelligent students who might underperform; we also know that standardized tests have often had implicit socioeconomic and racial/ethnic biases. Why is that an either/or?

Additionally, the author suggests that we measure high schools based largely on SAT scores. College admissions committees have much more data available to them, including size of the school, zoning/financial data, number of APs offered, ## of students matriculating, and so forth.

I’m interested in the author’s overall suggestion to reform the test itself (and the argument that making it optional might disadvantage those students who opt out), but to get us there, I’d like to see him engage with actual sources/data re: performance trends on the test itself (rather than just his own personal experience). And has the value of this metric changed when the test have undergone revision in the past? Overall, we know that *as written*, the SAT tends to be a poor measure of student intelligence and aptitude. Start there.

3 years ago
Reply to  M C

The SAT has undergone a complete transformation from the days when analogies were used to measure student achievement. I am left wondering what kinds of suggestions the commentator has in mind regarding reforming the test itself? The test has been transformed to such a degree that a major study(released in 2020) commissioned by the University of California–analyzing 18 years worth of data–concluded that in point of fact the test is NOT biased and is a stronger predictor of college success than GPA, and furthermore that it can be adjusted to account of advantages offered by virtue of socioeconomic background to test takers. I am always amazed at the myths that swirl around the SAT and the dumb opinions that people make and pass off as facts. Doing away with the SAT is stupid. Elite universities will not suddenly open the flood gates to everyone. In fact, the opposite will happen. The metrics used to evaluate students will become more opaque. And should the SAT be eliminated, high school students will find themselves contending with admission criteria that rely more heavily on essays and student writing. That is a bigger nightmare for students as very few are capable at 17 or 16 years of age of writing truly compelling essays. Removing the boogeyman so often cited as the reason why certain groups of students do better over others will do nothing to bridge the gap in student achievement, and will have the unintended consequence of harming those students already at a disadvantage.

Scott Elliott
3 years ago

Hmm. Never took the ACT nor the SAT. Started at a junior college. Somehow managed to obtain both a Ph.D. and a J.D. when I took both the GRE and the LSAT, I found them to be a waste of my time. When there is a pattern of discrimination based socioeconomic status, culture or race, that discriminatory element should be removed or marginalized. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the ACT and SAT discriminates against students. Those tests privilege students who have access to tutors, better school systems, and test prep courses.

Anony the Mouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Scott Elliott

“tutors, better school systems, and test prep courses.” The problem here is that it sounds like wealthier students are just smarter as a result of having more resources, and because every test under the sun favors smarter students, I’m not sure that “discriminatory” is the right word to use here. The solution would be to design a test that can’t be taught (something like an IQ test but more academic), but I’m not even sure that making such a test would be possible. The inherent problem is that the SAT and ACT are really tests of how hard you can work (of course you can brute force with pure intelligence, but that can only take you so far), and lower income student working after school jobs just don’t have the time to spend multiple hours a day studying or the disposable income to hire a tutor. But then again, the problem of disposable time and money still exists in the context of extracurriculars and GPA, so removing the test does nothing.

I’m a firm believer in the fact that academic potential is evenly distributed across the population. However, how much of that potential is realized is somewhat dependant on wealth (going along with this analogy, tutors and courses help you realize more of your potential). Therefore, the real problem isn’t with a test but really the question of “how can we create a fair college admissions process that, as a whole, can determine a student’s true potential?”

3 years ago

Well, why should students have to go through any singular event meant to attempt to determine their potential? Why should we try and find one way to gauge students’ potential when that way may not display every student’s potential in the same way? Instead of stressing out students or providing some obvious advantage to wealthier students or anything like that, figure out a way to fairly evaluate individual students’ skills and potential. Why should students’ future be based on one or two tests that they might completely screw up when they could’ve just been given a chance that isn’t one singular test but rather something like multiple short evaluations, ones that are tailored to the way the student learns, over time? Students change in what effort they exert and what potential they might have and a test at one point in time could never accurately determine every student who takes that test’s potential. But, what do I know? I’m just a student who would rather focus less on scores and more on actually learning because lectures don’t exactly mesh with a tactile learner.

2 years ago
Reply to  Scott Elliott

If you started at a junior college and got a JD and PhD that just means you are an outlier. While colleges are looking for potential leaders to admit as students, the test scores give them ways to differentiate between high school students of the same social class (as they know who is applying and where they are coming from as they take statistics). There are plenty of paths to success if people are intelligent and you found one. Some paths take longer, such as if people need to fill in gaps in their previous education. Providing a seamless transition to adulthood is not the college’s responsibility. Why would you be upset that other people choose more standard paths towards college recognition? The vast majority of test takers do not go on to do a PhD. Wealthier students will go on to university at higher rates, but they are often wealthier in the first place because their family valued education.
If people from non-middle class backgrounds want to get an education as a first generation student who did not attend a school where they were prepared for college they should be welcomed, but also expected to learn the material. Colleges should provide some resources to help them catch up to speed but should not provide credit for classes that are not up to college level. I worked for the undergraduate math tutoring lab in college and there was a self paced algebra tutorial course for students who failed the math placement test. We had middle aged students in the course who had forgotten algebra and/or never took geometry as well as other students with gaps. The students did not get credit for the course, they bought an $80 textbook with the material and got problems to practice on during their own time and free help at the math tutoring center if they wanted it. We also administered quizzes and their final exam for the course. Before they were allowed to sign up for business calculus they took this class and were expected to pass. It is time consuming but why would you want to admit people to calculus who don’t know how to graph or factor?
They were not cleared by the course for the regular calculus class for math majors as the self paced course was made to be very easy, but for the easier calculus course for non stem majors it allowed them to proceed which a lot of people wanted anyway if they were not interested in math or science. If students re-took the placement test and passed they would probably have been able to sign up for the regular calculus course but they would also have had to have learned trigonometry. They might have been able to negotiate with the math department in other ways if they really thought that they had messed up the test. I don’t know, as I transferred into the school already at calculus 2 as I had already taken calculus at the time.