Let’s discuss the elephant in the college-application-process’ room: while standardized testing has long proved a barrier for minority students, this mid-pandemic limbo is not abating any concerns. Students applying to colleges, especially reach schools, typically know to not take any comforting words at face value. And for that very reason, the ambiguity and incongruence between schools’ test submission policies are driving many more students up a wall than it is providing the comfort schools (supposedly) intend for it to have.

By non-unanimously and indefinitely phasing out standardized testing, universities create more questions than they resolve –– further propagating worry among prospective students throughout the college process –– and instill value in other inequitable measurements seen within applications. Despite how progressive and overdue this move may seem, it leads to many more opportunities for students’ needs and skills to go unrecognized, and must be evaluated and improved to truly serve our students’ needs.


The disparate history of college admissions

Anyone who has had the luck of accessing a college counselor, or the time to extensively research for themselves, has typically come across the three distinctions colleges are separated out into. They are the three golden words –– aside from “You are accepted,” and “need-blind aid,” of course. Safeties, targets, and reaches, the three words that make up your college list, dictate how many hours you spend doubting every life choice you have ever made and have historically created almost insurmountable barriers for all low-income, minority students trying to access higher education.

In case the connection isn’t familiar, the categories are defined by test scores. Any school whose average scores you surpass is a safety; any school whose average scores you have is a target; and any school whose scores you might be below, is a reach. Oh! And the roughly 50 institutions with less than 20% acceptance rates –– those are automatically ‘reaches’ for everyone. 


The gray policy area created

So, imagine being a student without scores. It is easy to see how there is a massive question mark over what level to designate schools while going through the process. Now, imagine, being a student with scores that may be below the typical scores needed for the ‘Golden Dozen.’ Schools going test-optional and test blind in 2020 without more clearly stating what they will expect from students creates a tremendous amount of doubt for applicants. To colleges and universities’ relief, I think most of us recognize they also are under tremendous stress at the moment –– trying to pull together new rubrics for the review process. 

Out of touch adults have been preaching about the negative effects changes in the system they profit from would create; one of the main hesitancies (always so kindly phrased) involves minorities crowding PWIs (predominantly white institutions). However, in the past, it has been shown that test-optional schools tend to not have significant changes in their diversity rates. Could it be because students who do have scores, and scores that are near perfect, choose to submit theirs? This would leave minority, low-income students at a disadvantage –– yet again. Except this time, there is even less they can do about the situation than ever before. We are, in case anyone has forgotten, in the midst of a pandemic. Our most disadvantaged youth is also our most at-risk youth. Expecting them to fit in a test –– if dates are even offered remotely close to where they reside –– shows a particularly concerning lapse in moral judgment. 


What test optionality and blindness won’t fix

So, we take off test scores from college applications. What happens next, you ask? Well, then applications’ GPAs and class ranks hold much more weight than ever before. The amount of AP (Advanced Placement) and DC (Dual Credit or Dual Enrollment) classes a student takes are considered much more, even if the college will not be using them to determine the number of credit hours a student may already have. The only remaining beacon of hope is that with this new weight distribution, essays and teacher recommendations may also hold more power. Because we all know, AP classes are not always as accessible for some students; their schools may not offer them. Or, consider that the student may have too many responsibilities at home to be taking a heavy course load. 

Yet another possibility is that things as non-controversial as their recommendations may be lacking. Speaking from experience, one of my recommendations was so poorly written––grammatically––that I cried when I saw it. And it’s a reality that exists. It is not always one that students contemplate because traditionally, we do not have access to our teachers and counselors’ most raw thoughts. But I was given the short end of the stick; it granted me access to their letters, but with no power to correct their half-finished phrases –– or opportunity to explain to colleges that my letters were not a reflection of my attention to detail. 


To those left confused

Now we’re left with the issue of one typically recognized barrier being gone, but a dozen other ways for things to go awry brought further to attention. So, anyone who has read this far may be a tad skeptical of the benefits of changing the application if it won’t fix ‘anything.’ And to them I say: I get it. It is an unfortunate situation. Ideally, we throw out the whole system!

In the meantime, we must collectively begin to acknowledge the imperfections of the system, and its short term solutions. For those most specifically worried about the ‘under-qualified’ students that may start to get into the most competitive institutions: recognize how elitist that thought is. Anyone who has taken the test and gotten any sort of tutoring for the tests involves building discipline into how it works. There are ways to answer questions, and patterns to be conscious of; these are not truly reflective of intelligence. Furthermore, understand that––to the dismay of those in support of abolishing the current college applications’ system––it seems that test optionality does not actually increase diversity by any significant amount on campuses, according to previous studies. 


Our saving grace

In the meantime, let’s consider reforms. Their results may be limited, seeing as they will place more emphasis on one aspect of the application, without truly ridding the application of inequity entirely. But, teacher recommendations still do tend to serve as more reflective of the type of student you are looking at. In regards to the discouraging anecdote, what I can say is that –– what was written about me was exceptionally kind! And, colleges do understand that the eloquence with which it is said is dependent upon the individual writer and not the student!

The good news is, many community colleges have long been accepting students without consideration of test scores! So, whether a student’s aim is a top 50 higher education institution or a degree close to home at a small campus, they have options. And for the low-income students possibly more frightened now than they might have been at the beginning, I recommend applying to Matriculate. It is an incredible educational equity organization that matches low-income, high-achieving high school students about to go through the college application system to students at high graduation rate colleges and universities. Test optionality won’t fix everything, but it may help –– and in the meantime, consider all of your options.