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Moving past the standardized test requirement

| Thursday, October 8, 2020

Notre Dame made an obvious decision for the 2020-2021 application cycle: suspending the standardized test requirement. Testing centers had closed. Students had few options.

Less obvious, yet equally sound, was Notre Dame’s decision to make the new policy “part of a one-year pilot program with the option of expanding to future terms.” Test-optional admissions would be a strong step forward for Notre Dame, a selective university working toward greater diversity and inclusion.

It’s no secret that standardized tests perpetuate inequality through college admissions. As of 2016, college-bound seniors with a family income of $140,000–$200,000 outscored peers with a family income of $60,000–$80,000 by 126 points on the former 2400-point SAT scale. In addition, white students outscored Black students by 302 points.

Beyond school-level inequalities, test preparation inequalities are largely to blame. SAT and ACT tutor fees run into the thousands of dollars, test-prep classes run into the hundreds and even taking multiple tests can be prohibitively expensive. Another common criticism is that the test questions themselves are biased. An infamous SAT question, for example, once asked students which analogy most closely resembled “runner : marathon.” The correct answer, “oarsman : regatta,” was found by 53% percent of white students but just 22% of Black students. The SAT analogy section is now gone, but criticisms of cultural bias remain.

Last year, the College Board tried to address these issues using an “adversity score,” which measured a student’s “overall disadvantage level” on a 100-point scale. How that score was measured, the College Board would not say. Yet, they could not hide the inconvenient truth: There is no fair standardized measure of “disadvantage.” Under mounting criticism, the College Board eventually dropped the score. They did not, however, address the existential problem facing the SAT: There is no fair standardized measure of “scholarly aptitude.”

All that said, standardized tests remain necessary. At the typical high school Notre Dame visits for recruiting events, the median family income is greater than $100,000 and more than 60% of students are white. For applicants outside that bubble, a high score on the SAT/ACT can be one of few ways to grab the admissions office’s attention.

Therefore, test-optional admissions are Notre Dame’s best step forward. Removing the test requirement gives power back to those whom the test has historically failed. And at the same time, keeping the test option gives power to students outside Notre Dame’s typical admissions bubble. While those two groups might often be one and the same, rendering the choice somewhat inconsequential, there currently remains no better policy option.

After Notre Dame announced the test-optional pilot program, I saw a funny response from a former editor in chief of The Observer, Ben Padanilam, who tweeted, “But how will they know for sure that the class of 2025 is the best class yet then?” It reminded me of my first days on campus, when I was told, ad nauseam, that my class was the best and brightest ever admitted.

I hope this new policy, in addition to leveling the application field, helps reframe the narrative around Notre Dame admissions. Merit might guide admissions decisions — at least for the most part — but neither standardized testing nor even the admissions office is a perfect judge. At the end of the day, every Notre Dame student is lucky to have been accepted.

In that sense, our presence at this University is not a testament to our objective excellence. Rather, it’s a gift, one often inaccessible to those whom standardized admissions tests fail.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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