In-depth: A test-optional future


Kain Stobbe

After the COVID-19 pandemic affected standardized testing opportunities, a permanent future with test-optional college applications is possible.

After three hours of staring at the tiny bubbles on a Scantron sheet, even a good student can start to go cross-eyed. Taking the ACT or SAT is a time-consuming process, especially for those taking tutoring classes and retaking the test in hopes of getting a better score. The COVID-19 pandemic changed standardized testing opportunities, with some tests getting rescheduled and others cancelled completely, adding even more stress to the college application process. 

Because of this, many US colleges announced they would allow students to choose whether or not to submit standardized test scores as part of their application. 89% of colleges using Common App, a college application site, offered test-optional applications in 2021. A report from Common App showed that 43% of students submitted test scores in 2020, as compared to 77% in 2019. 

“[Colleges] felt as though it was the right thing to do, to remain test-optional for another year,” Abby Peterson, KHS college counselor, said. “If students don’t feel as though their test score is an accurate reflection of their collegiate potential, it’s given students the option to not have to send it.”

According to Inside Higher Ed, 75% of U.S. colleges are test-optional for the 2021-22 application cycle. More than half of the colleges that are test-optional for the 2021-22 application cycle have decided to remain that way for 2022-23 applications. While current juniors and seniors have test-optional application guarantees, that may change by the time underclassmen, like Mason Heller, apply to college.

“There’s a little bit of uncertainty in the process that I’ve come to expect,” Heller said. “Colleges right now are either desperate for applicants, or they are realizing that a lot of their applicants aren’t suitable. So [students] are catching a break there.”

Nationally, standardized tests have experienced a decline from 2020 to 2021. (Kain Stobbe)

Nationally, 700,000 fewer students took the SAT in 2021 than in 2020, primarily due to COVID-19 complications, according to Inside Higher Ed. KHS does not offer the SAT for students, but it offers the practice SAT (PSAT) for sophomores for standardized test practice and National Merit scholarship opportunities. Kelly Nevins, KHS science teacher and former KHS testing coordinator, said PSAT numbers have been going down at KHS since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re moving away [from the PSAT] because not all colleges are requiring [the SAT],” Nevins said. “Families are starting to realize [students] don’t need to take this test just to take a test. That idea of taking one test to determine your value, your worth or your understanding is starting to fade away.”

Nevins thinks the KHS-proctored PSAT is a low stress opportunity for students to see if they want to take the SAT. Heller took the PSAT in December and said he was not overly worried, but still mindful of how it might impact his high school and college plans.

“The thing is, you don’t want to do a ton of work and burn yourself out,” Heller said. “But with colleges being test-optional, it relieves a little bit of the pressure.”

That idea of taking one test to determine your value, your worth or your understanding is starting to fade away.”

— Kelly Nevins

Peterson and Joshua Jaworowski, the other KHS college counselor, still recommend students take the ACT or SAT. However, Peterson said GPA is more important to a student’s application, especially for students who are not strong test-takers.

“[Colleges going test-optional] has put emphasis on knowing what school you want to apply to and all the things that they want from you—GPA, selective courses, essays and letters of recommendation,” Peterson said. “There’s power in knowing that every single piece of an application does matter. They are looking at it in order to get a holistic, fuller picture of you in the process.”