Inside the vast national experiment in test-optional college admissions
April 10, 2022
As the deadline to submit college applications approached last year, Hilary Cabrera Orozco braced for disappointment.
The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, and a nearly straight-A student, had her heart set on attending Cornell University, the elite campus in upstate New York where her older cousin was already enrolled.
But her SAT scores were discouragingly low.
“It was humbling,” said Cabrera Orozco, 18, a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester County, just north of New York City. “I worked hard throughout all my years in high school, and then one test will determine if I’m good enough for a school. I feel like that’s kind of unfair.”
What Cabrera Orozco didn’t realize was that the pandemic that had disrupted her high school years led college admissions offices across the country — including Cornell — to waive standardized testing requirements. The change — perhaps the most significant shakeup in college admissions since the SAT and ACT were first widely required more than 50 years ago — has become a large-scale experiment, with high stakes for both colleges and their prospective students.
“It’s a sea change in terms of how admissions decisions are being made,” said Robert Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of the way standardized testing is used. “The pandemic created a natural experiment. Colleges were forced to see how test optional worked.”
Test-optional and test-blind admissions had begun to gain steam before the pandemic, with proponents arguing that tests hurt the odds of applicants who have traditionally not done as well on them, including students whose first language isn’t English, students whose parents didn’t go to college, Black and Hispanic students, immigrant students and students whose families can’t afford expensive test prep programs.