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Does ChatGPT Mean the End of Test-Optional?

A seismic shift in education is upon us: ChatGPT will forever change how teachers assess writing.

For those unaware, ChatGPT is a product from Open AI that auto-generates just about any text you ask. It's kind of like a search engine but much more powerful since the search results are full length prose in the tone you ask it to create.

Need a 5-paragraph essay on the causes of the Civil War as written by a high schooler? ChatGPT can spit that out in about 20 seconds. Want to write an inspirational speech to celebrate a beloved coach? Ask ChatGPT and you will get a well-written, thoughtful speech in no time.

Open AI is not the only provider for this kind of output. Just yesterday my son produced a brilliantly written essay, in Spanish, on the artwork of Frida Kahlo that he generated in about 10 seconds from an AI platform inside SnapChat.

These are just a few examples of the power of what AI can produce. You can engage in deep, even scary conversations, with an AI interface. Or you can ask it to create slide decks, artwork and more.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Currently, the most common use of programs like ChatGPT is to produce written work: research papers, poems, stories and—wait for it—college admissions essays.

Schools around the country, and even the world, are scrambling to establish policies about how to handle ChatGPT. If a chatbot can generate an essay, what is the value of teaching writing? Is using ChatGPT equivalent to plagiarism?

For college admissions, the question is equally daunting: What value is a college admissions essay if it is written by a chatbot? How can AI-generated essays help a college know the student any more?

"It's something colleges have to be considering," says Jon Burke, Co-Director of College Counseling at the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, CA. "If students are submitting essays written by ChatGPT, colleges may need to rethink the weighting they place on essays. Perhaps that means test-optional schools will reconsider their testing policies."

Burke's logic is sound. If AI-produced college essays cannot be differentiated from original work, how is a college going to know a student any more? In absence of essays, how will selective colleges do an apples:apples comparison of the thousands of applicants they get?

Is a comparison of GPAs the answer? Most admissions counselors will tell you grade inflation is rampant and GPAs are much more homogenized than ever. At best, GPAs give just a snapshot.

Is rigor the way to compare students? Goodness, I hope not. If rigor is the point of comparison then students will select high school coursework not out of curiosity but instead out of a desire to game college admissions. That doesn't seem right.

Maybe SAT and ACT testing is the elephant in the room. Maybe the pendulum will swing away from test-optional and back to test-required. After all, despite the limits of standardized testing, testing would be an apples:apples comparison.

Followers of this blog and of CROSSWALK know that we have lauded test-optional policies long before COVID (though we think the branding of test-optional is a misnomer since it should really be "submission-optional" and not "test-optional"). Nevertheless, now may be the time to re-assess how the SAT and ACT could be used in college admissions.

Given the pending ubiquity of AI-produced writing, should the SAT and ACT be less optional? Should essays be eliminated? Should testing be required?

Lots of questions that educators must face. ChatGPT is an amazing tool that can help with a lot of things. Nothing to disparage there especially if we can use AI to be a more efficient and effective society.

But in the short term, the value we put on writing—and its importance in college admissions—may have to be reconsidered.

Yes, the seismic shift in education is here. College admissions, and school in general, will never be the same.

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