The Admissions Factory Part II: The de-standardization of college admissions
Updated: Mar 9
I authored a piece last year exploring the marketing roots of the modern college admissions office to industrial measurement practices and political marketing. Today’s piece is a follow-up that strives to surround the current shift in the use of standardized admissions testing with some historical context.
In 1890, Harvard president Charles William Eliot proposed a common testing approach to university entrance examinations. Up until then, each university had largely been responsible for managing their own forms of college readiness. Eliot had long articulated the merits of national standardized testing, stating in an 1869 inaugural address, “The rigorous examination for admission has one good effect throughout the college course: it prevents a waste of instruction upon incompetent persons.” Quite a charmer that one; I said it - we were all thinking it.
In 1901, the College Entrance Examination Board was created, and with it, standardized college entrance testing was born. By 1920, intelligence and aptitude tests were hugely popular, in use not only for college entrance, but also for armed services job placement as well as sorting and classifying elementary and secondary school students. In 1926, the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was administered measuring vocabulary and mathematics across 315 items. Shortly thereafter, E.F. Lundquist, a University of Iowa Education professor, created the country’s first statewide achievement test for all high school students in 1929, paving the way for the invention of the American College Testing (ACT) program.
Through multiple world wars (which led to the heavy use of standardized testing for the sorting of service members), significant growth in college enrollment via the G.I. Bill, and through both the Elementary and Secondary Education Acts of 1965, and 2000s No Child Left Behind legislation, educational and vocational decision-making has relied heavily on the use of norm-referenced, national standardized tests. Likewise, students have become accustomed to standardized tests, with the average student taking 112 nationally standardized tests during his or her K-12 education.
The rapid decline
It is hard, therefore, to overstate how sudden and dramatic the 2020 drop-off was for standardized testing in college admissions, given the steady march in growth it has experienced for multiple generations. According to the Common Application, only 44% of college applicants submitted a SAT or ACT score via their platform thus far in this admissions cycle, down from 77% from the previous cycle. In 2017, 27 U.S. states utilized, or planned to utilize, standardized testing as a high school graduation requirement. As of February 2021, that number has decreased to 11 states.
Much of this decline is due to the inaccessibility to SAT and ACT testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why were these tests inaccessible? Because the ACT and SAT is not actually administered by the testing organizations themselves. Instead, the ACT and College Board (which operates the SAT) rely on a vast network of schools and community organizations to administer tests. It was this network that was essentially eliminated during the pandemic. The failure of this business model was only exacerbated by the lack of a digital backup plan, despite there being a decades worth of innovation in the field of online testing (see Duolingo’s English Test which is completely online) upon which the ACT and SAT could have built.
The result? Over two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities were test-optional or test-blind in the 2021 admissions cycle. More than half of colleges have already announced they will be test-optional for the 2022 cycle. To give you a more visceral sense for how sudden the shift has been, consider this: the FairTest organization published a report detailing the chronological adoption of test-optional policies by various colleges and universities. The list of colleges adopting such policies from the fall of 2004 to the winter of 2019 comprises six pages. The list of colleges that adopted new test-optional policies in the spring and summer of 2020 alone takes up over ten pages.
The genie is out of the bottle
It is widely anticipated that most colleges and universities that were newly test-optional in 2021 will remain so for the foreseeable future, as even ACT’s own CEO has admitted. That is because for many colleges, going test-optional results in significant growth in applications as students who would otherwise have too low of test scores suddenly have these barriers removed. For many colleges, especially the non-elite “have nots” among the admissions “haves,” their pool of interested students is simply too thin to entertain adding application requirements. Admissions deans and VPs are all too aware of the cautionary tale of the 12-institution university system in Florida, which experienced a nearly 50% drop in applications after the state legislature there forbade its public universities from going test-optional.
Another aspect that is likely to signal that test-optional policies are set to be around for some time are the population demographics that are predicted to unfold over the next decade. According to Carlton College economics professor Nathan Grawe, colleges are expected to see a “demographic cliff," and with it, significant declines in college-going seniors by 2025. Historically, the largest increases in the usage of standardized testing in college admissions have accompanied demographically fueled growth in college enrollment. Simply put, when you have more students applying, you need more quantitative tools to help you sort the admissible.
So what does all this mean for students?
In a way, the question, “what now” has already been answered. Non-standardized measures including grade point average, writing ability, leadership qualities, and intellectual verve have always been a part of the admissions process, and colleges of all stripes are quite comfortable assessing them. Like my old Ray Ban Clubmaster sunglasses, what is old is new again, as colleges embrace their decentralized, holistic, non-standard roots of assessing applicant fit.
Here’s what that means for you, the applicant:
It puts an emphasis on the quality of your application: and by quality, I mean the personal exploration and effort you put into it. We are not talking about packaging here, which relies on sleight of hand and phony embellishment. We are referring to telling your story proudly, clearly, and boldly.
Essays have never been more important: The essay is the one part of your application that speaks directly from you to the human being (read that again, human being) reading your application. Focus on communicating with palpable emotion in your essay.
Grades and course selection will continue to be the top factor: While standardized testing has always been a top 3 variable in the admissions process, the pinnacle spots over the last 20 years have been total GPA/academic course GPA and curricular rigor. Admissions officers do not expect perfection, but are looking and how well you have consistently applied your efforts
The ACT/SAT are no longer the Harry Potter sorting hat: If you are a Junior or younger, I would encourage you to stop seeing your collegiate options through the moderating lens of only a test score. In the past, a student would approach their college search with a kind of hesitation, waiting to see what kind of test score they would get before fully considering their options. Students do not need to do this anymore.
It’s just one step out of many: Given the decreasing role that testing is beginning to play, students can begin to put the ACT and SAT in a proper context. Taking the test and doing well on it can certainly be a positive thing, but it is no longer the high stakes make-or-break that it perhaps used to be. Prepare for it, work hard at it, and move on, knowing that the collegiate options you have been working toward are still open to you.
Overall, the case can be made that when trying to measure something as varied as human achievement and ambition, non-standardization was always the best option. Let individual colleges decide how they want to review their students based on their purpose and mission. It also means that students can decide for themselves what colleges are a fit for them, rather than a test doing that for them.