Test-Optional Makes Colleges Merit-Optional

Test-Optional Makes Colleges Merit-Optional

In December, Harvard University announced that it will not require prospective undergraduate students to submit SAT or ACT scores for admission through 2026. The decision is the latest example of a movement among elite colleges to undercut the meritocratic nature of academic institutions. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, several colleges and universities around the country, including Stanford, eliminated SAT/ACT score submission requirements. Many of these institutions have decided to maintain test-optional policies, arguing that they broaden access to higher education for underrepresented minorities and maximize “diversity,” the gold standard for educational institutions these days. However, test-optional policies undermine the meritocratic culture of America’s top universities that has been responsible for America’s innovative and technological dominance.

Since standardized tests took root in the United States, they have been widely accepted as necessary to judge students’ academic merit, the primary factor considered when determining admission to an academic institution. The purpose of a university is, ideally, to be a repository and generator of knowledge. Stanford claims that its mission is “to advance knowledge and contribute to society through research and the education of future leaders.” To achieve goals like these, a university requires students who are willing to commit themselves to deep and focused study of a particular set of subjects. Standardized tests are the only common metric that allow institutions to compare students on the basis of their potential to supplant their ultimate goal. If standardized tests are eliminated, a school’s ability to determine which students would academically perform is dramatically reduced.

Of course, no one exam can capture all elements of a student’s academic potential. But, the fact that these tests are standardized makes them the only way to truly compare students from across the world. Anti-standardized testing activists argue that high school grades/GPAs can be used over SAT/ACT scores. This approach is laughably problematic, because GPA is a subjective measurement; different schools grade their students at differing degrees of harshness. Logical inconsistencies like these prompt us to ask ourselves what the purpose of test-optional policies and the push against standardized testing actually is. The answer is quite simple. At the end of the day, regardless of whether or not students benefit from test-optional policies, colleges and universities care about their statistics. Higher education has become a game of optimizing rankings, where thousands of institutions work to dial up numbers that popular media companies use to assign ranks. While these institutions claim that test-optional policies are for raising racial and ethnic diversity, one number that we know always goes up with test-optional policies, almost immediately, is the number of applicants. Private universities saw increases of 29% on average (Stanford saw an increase of 17% from 2020, while Harvard saw an increase of 42%) upon the implementation of the policy. The dramatic increase in the number of applications results in lowered acceptance rates, which is yet another hallmark of prestige in college ranking systems.

The admissions process, particularly for elite academic institutions, is meant to find students with not only great intellect, but also an unwavering willingness to work hard in their academic pursuits, both of which are measured directly by standardized tests. Additionally, removing the one common point of reference–standardized test scores–would make the admissions process even more variable and error-prone than it currently is. But most importantly, test-optional policies and the anti-standardized testing movement sacrifice the meritocracy that is responsible for America’s historical dominance in favor of an illogical standard of maximizing diversity. America’s top universities should not be testing grounds for such radical and unfounded policies. They should be focused on rewarding academic merit and identifying the best minds regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.

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