Is High-Stakes Testing Here to Stay?

By now you’ve probably heard that several top colleges and universities will again require SAT or ACT score during the application process. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was among the first to announce that it was reinstating standardized test scores back in March of 2023. Earlier this month, Dartmouth followed suit, becoming the first Ivy League to bring back the SAT/ACT requirement. Among elite schools, standardized testing is on its way back, which will have many implications if you’re preparing for the admissions process.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools went test optional. Among many top schools, this policy stuck, becoming for many a huge relief from the anxiety and stress of preparing for the SAT or ACT. Test optional even became part of the argument for equity in the admissions process, some suggesting that standardized test scores excluded students from certain backgrounds. Advocates for test-optional policies claimed they promoted greater fairness and opportunity.

The latest studies, however, suggest that test-optional policies may have actually had the opposite effect: They may have inadequately identified top students from lesser-known schools. This is often the effect of grade inflation or difficulties applying a standardized system for grading at the high-school level. For example, two high-performing students from a lesser-known school may have vastly different capabilities when it comes to exceling at the university level. Scholars have suggested that the SAT and ACT are better indicators of college success than high school GPA. 

It is understandable why universities want to standardize the admissions process and help to identify the most diverse student body. It turns out that the SAT and ACT can actually aid in this process. In another example, a student with an average GPA may show their true capability on standardized testing, which, in turn, will be more predictive of how they will do in the long term. Standardized testing can thus actually level the playing field for students attending all types of high schools around the country. So, if you’re not in a pipeline school, strong test scores will help to show how you can excel in an elite school.

Wherever you stand on the issue, the return of high-stakes testing is likely to induce a familiar anxiety to many students. Worse, policies differ greatly among schools. While some Ivy Plus schools have brought back testing, many have remained test optional. Columbia University has instated a permanent test-optional policy. Other Ivy League schools appear on the fence. For example, Princeton is “test flexible,” meaning you can submit your scores if you feel they represent you well as a student, but you don’t have to submit them. 

How confusing! Is the lack of standardization on standardized testing causing you anxiety? Many students are coming to find the process ever-more stressful, with too many inconsistencies and abrupt changes. This inevitably affects how and where students choose to apply. Many students are on edge and unsure of how to best prepare for admissions. The confusion itself may be more stressful than if there were a consistent policy and expectations among schools.

If you’re having to again consider preparing for standardized testing, it can bring on a host of challenges:

  • Test-related anxiety
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Indecisiveness 
  • Foreclosure of options
  • Additional pressure from parents
  • Problems with confidence or self-esteem

Test-prep programs can help with the test itself, but they may not be adequate enough to aid with all of the other difficulties and frustrations that come up around this critical life decision. A mental health professional can work to help you through the anxiety, conflicts around choosing a school, and family issues that come up around the admissions process. If you’re struggling with any of these issues, a therapist for adolescents on the Upper West Side can help.