I'm a Mom and a College Counselor: Here's What Standardized Testing Pressure Means for Our Kids

Aren't the SAT and ACT becoming obsolete? Not fast enough.

I'm a Mom and a College Counselor and Here's What Standardized Testing Is Doing To Our Kids
Photo: Grace Canaan

I am a college counselor for high school students, a job I love that gives me a chance to be a part of what should be a joyful and exciting time in teenagers' lives. Instead, especially in the past two years, I have witnessed too often the enormous and damaging pressure our young people endure as they try to navigate a landscape built by adults who profit from their stress—especially when it comes to standardized testing, aka the SAT and ACT.

Being the mother of four children, including a college freshman and two high school students, makes me a better college counselor. It's one thing to advise other people's kids which colleges to add to their lists, how to fill out their Common Apps, or whether to try taking the SAT one more time. It's quite another to watch your own baby (who will always be your baby, even if they are tall and gangly and they have to shave now) process the news that they just missed their goal score on a test (again), sit down to write yet another "Why Us?" college essay, or receive a rejection from a college they love. But every student is my kid, and my heart breaks and swells with theirs.

That's why I find this time of year especially hard, as I watch seniors receive college decisions—both happy and sad—and juniors begin the process. I wish I could focus on all the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead for my juniors, but I find myself instead answering panicked questions about standardized tests: Is the SAT or ACT "better?" When should they take them? How many times should they take them? Should they get a tutor or take a class? Which one? What if their test is canceled? What if they can't get the score they "need" for their dream school?

If your kid is navigating the gauntlet that is today's college admission process, here's what you need to know.

Many Schools Are Now 'Test-Optional' Or 'Test-Blind'

Before 2020, there were already more than a thousand American colleges and universities practicing test-optional admissions policies. A "test-optional" university considers test scores if students submit them, but choosing not to submit scores as part of their applications will not put applicants at a disadvantage. One admissions officer described the test-optional admissions process to me like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together, but with one piece missing: Sure, that piece could, theoretically, change the whole picture and its meaning, but it probably wouldn't. In the same way, admissions readers are able to glean a full view of who an applicant could be on their campus by looking at other elements of their college applications, such as grades, transcript rigor, and teacher recommendations, no scores necessary.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the nation's colleges and universities decided to go test-optional as students across the country were unable to take an SAT or ACT at all. Now, many institutions are maintaining that policy—or even taking it a step further, like the state university system of California, and adopting "test-blind" admissions processes. Test-blind universities won't use test scores in their admissions evaluations even if they are submitted. States like Florida and Georgia, where test scores are still mandatory for admission to any of their state universities, are now outliers.

So why aren't SATs and ACTs a thing of the past now? Every new headline announces a new university (like Harvard, or Boston University, or the state university systems of Iowa, Oregon, and Washington) has decided to continue test-optional admissions policies for the next few years.

Do tests still matter? Yes, at least for some students, like those who need them for state university admission or for merit scholarships, or those who hope to strengthen an application by including them. In fact, at least 1.7 million students will take the SATs this year, according to the College Board.

Now that The College Board has announced it will move the SAT to a digital format for U.S. students in the spring of 2024, students might feel even more pressure to sit for "just one more" test, in fact—and while it may not seem like a big deal to those who aren't taking the tests themselves, even a shorter SAT will have an impact on students' mental health and stress levels. Every time they open new score results, there is a feeling their future hangs in the balance. My students and their parents still believe universities see scores as a measure of a student's worth—one they better be able to provide.

Testing Consumes Time (And Money)

Despite the disruptions from COVID-19, students have not stopped testing or feeling obligated to test. They worry if they don't submit scores, admissions officers will assume it is because they weren't high enough. Teenagers still spend hours—and, for those who have it to spend, a lot of money—on test prep in addition to their schoolwork, sports, jobs, and clubs in an attempt to attain scores that will make them more desirable and eliminate any doubt they too belong in ivory towers. Then they spend multiple Saturday mornings at the mercy of the College Board and ACT, Inc. Those who do not qualify or do not know how to claim their fee waivers might spend hundreds of dollars just for the chance to test at all.

Testing Reduces a Whole Life to a Score

We tell our children they are more than their test scores. We emphasize that what they do in and outside of their classrooms every day is more important than how they do on a standardized test for three hours on a random Saturday morning. Then we contradict ourselves over and over again. At one state university, test scores are optional, but not if your grade point average (GPA) is under a 3.6; below a 3.6, you have to "prove" you can handle the work with a mitigating test score.

Where scholarships are tied to test scores, the pressure is even greater. I live in Florida, where the state scholarship relies in part on a qualifying test score. As a result, I see seniors regularly taking exams five, six, eight, or even nine times in an effort to hit a score that will save their parents up to 100 percent of public state university tuition a year. For some families, that is a game-changer; it's a number that may mean the difference between whether a student can afford to go to college or not. However, it also means that they can't earn the scholarship if they don't hit a certain magic number on a test, no matter how much they try, no matter how many hours they study, and no matter how much they want or need it.

Testing Shatters Our Kids' Self Confidence

I hope, for your sake, you never have to suggest to a teenager they leave a score they worked incredibly hard to achieve off of their college applications to give them a better chance of getting into colleges they want to attend. There's a look on their faces when they realize what I am saying that I know I can never forget, one that makes me feel complicit in this terrible, barbaric form of hazing we continue to accept and put our kids through. I do it only when I need to in order to help my students get where they hope to—and where I believe they should—go. But at what price? How do we tell our kids only parts of them are "good enough?" Who gets to decide what is good enough? The College Board? The middle 50th percentile range of a college's admitted student profile?

Recently, in a discussion on test scores and whether or not to submit them to test-optional universities, Oregon State University VP of Enrollment Jon Boeckenstedt tweeted, "It's. The. Exact. Same. Student. With. Or. Without. The. Scores."

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, at this point in time, a strong score is still an advantage in most college admissions evaluations, so I advise my students to study for and take either the SAT or the ACT. But I also urge them to limit the amount of oxygen they give standardized tests.

Instead, I encourage them to focus on the elements of their applications they have more control over and that reveal much more about their character, their potential, and who they will be on a college campus, like the way they challenge themselves in their classrooms, their grades and their involvement in their high school communities. Their effort, their work ethic, and their hearts will always be more powerful and more indicative of future success than their test scores.

We all need to believe and remember that—our kids most of all.

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