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"Test-Optional" Needs Rebranding

"Test-optional" is a misnomer because it communicates the wrong message. Students and parents hear "test-optional" and conclude that there is no reason to take the SAT or ACT if the test is optional.

The reality is quite different: The option has noting to do with taking the SAT or ACT, rather the option is about submitting a score. For this reason, we should rebrand "test-optional" as "submission-optional."

College admission to selective institutions in a test-optional landscape has become incredibly competitive. So competitive that students should pursue whatever advantage possible. So the most useful advice for students is to take the SAT or ACT, and if they can achieve a score in the range of admitted students for their preferred colleges, then submit the scores.

Let's face it: SAT and ACT scores can provide a key measurable to colleges. Further, data shows that more admissions offers and scholarships are going to students who submit scores. So unless students are applying to strictly to test-blind schools, they should take the SAT or ACT to see where their score lands.

Ironically, the unintended consequence of the "test-optional" movement—a movement intended to rebalance college admissions towards more equity and inclusion—is that it may actually be creating more imbalance. CROSSWALK works with diverse groups of students and, anecdotally, the message is not consistent across different populations. On one hand, public school students in lower income or English-language learning settings are being told not to take the SAT or ACT because test scores are optional. On the other hand, private school students in higher income settings are being told to take the SAT or ACT because submission is optional.

The difference in messaging and the branding of "test-optional" is slight but very significant. If the data is true that more admissions offers and scholarships go to test submitters, the system favors those who are getting the message that submission is optional.

CROSSWALK has long been a proponent of "test-optional." Yet, we also understand that college admissions is evolving. Essays might be written by chatGPT. Grades are inflated. Extracurriculars may not tell the whole story. So what standardized approach can colleges use to compare students? Maybe test scores are the answer.

College admissions is a game. SAT and ACT testing is one tool to play the game that, on the surface, may sound optional. But remember: Submission is optional. Without a test score, you have lost a chance to take advantage of all admissions tools you have. So play the game by leveraging all options and take the "submission-optional" approach instead of the "test-optional" one.

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