As a college advisor I am often asked why standardized tests exist for college admissions, even as more colleges have become test-optional, with small numbers becoming test blind or test flexible. I have come to realize that colleges have reasons for requiring prospective students to take standardized tests, especially many where admissions have become exceptionally competitive. Here are three reasons why:
The high school transcript might not always be the best predictor of college success
College admissions officers will advise that prospective students take the most demanding classes offered at their high school and will often tell them that the high school transcript is the best predictor of future success. However, this advice often comes too late for a student to get on track with the transcript for the junior or senior year.
High school teachers might not permit, for example, a B+ student in an “academic” course in their sophomore year to make a jump into an advanced course in the junior year. If that student is shut out by more than one teacher the transcript might not be the best predictor of college success. A strong score on one or more sections of the ACT or the SAT might show that the student was capable of doing work on a higher level in high school, and improve their chances for admission.
At the same time, a high school student who does not feel confident in the subjects that s/he enjoys the least will opt for the least demanding college requirement in those subjects. S/he might have a very good, even excellent grade point average. But a weak score on standardized tests might reveal that their abilities in math or reading comprehension are not what they need to be for success in college. The transcript does not help the student, and nor do the test scores when both are examined together by a college admissions officer.
Colleges cannot afford to give their own “pre-admission entrance exams”
In my five years operating Educated Quest, I have heard of only one college, Bard, that developed a written entrance exam that students could take in place of submitting their high school transcript. However, Bard is a small school that takes between 500 and 550 first-year students each year. Very few (less than 20) are admitted through this exam. The numbers that submit this exam are so small that the admissions officers can divide them up among the staff and read them over the admissions cycle.
Now imagine if your flagship state university gave its own entrance exam. The academic record on the high school transcript and the score on this exam would represent at least 75 percent of the basis for admission.
But can such an exam be developed? Probably not.
For a college faculty to approve an entrance exam, it would have to consider the college’s general education requirements as well as the expectations of first-year students within different degree programs. The faculty would have to design not only the exam; they would also have to set acceptable scores in reading comprehension and mathematics proficiency by discipline and make those scores public so that prospective students could know where they stood. This could be a time consuming and expensive process for a college faculty, especially at a very large school that has a large bureaucracy. It is far easier for the university to require the ACT or the SAT then wait to administer English and Math placement tests on a much smaller population, the incoming freshmen. Some schools do not even bother giving a placement test. They use the ACT or SAT scores instead.
Faculty might believe in the “predictive value” of the standardized tests
I have seen many colleges that offer accelerated degree programs where students can save a year’s time towards earning their bachelor’s degree while also beginning a master’s degree, a law degree or a medical degree, among others. These degree programs require high standardized test scores, even if the college is test optional.
I see two reasons for this.
One is to ensure that these programs get the very best high school students from the admit pool, the ones whom the faculty believe are most likely to succeed in a more demanding, and possibly faster-paced college program.
The other, and this is my opinion, is that admission to these programs through the usual route, as a college senior, usually requires taking a harder standardized test than the ACT or SAT. It’s reasonable for a college faculty member to believe that a student who tested well on a standardized test in high school can be prepared to test well on a GRE, LSAT or MCAT, among other exams.
I know that many college-bound students and their parents, not to mention school counselors and independent college advisors consider standardized tests to be an imposition as well as an unfair criteria to use in the college admissions process. Many college admissions professionals who read applications from prospective freshmen feel the same way, and more and more college admissions offices do not require applicants to submit standardized test scores. However, standardized tests will never go disappear completely from college admissions. Too many schools need to rely on them.