In the early 2000’s, I read applications for a test optional liberal arts college for a few years when my children were small. Having worked as an admission officer for a large research university and also a K-12 independent school which both required testing, I was initially a bit skeptical about how admissions decisions could be made without a standard metric that compared students across a wide range of educational systems. I quickly learned that my skepticism was unfounded. It didn’t take long to realize that we actually had little trouble determining whether students would be good fits for us given the rest of the information available to us in the file. The biggest challenge was that it took more time to evaluate applications without using testing as a data point, as we had to focus more on the less objective aspects of the application ― the interview, the essays, the recommendations, and learning about the school the student was coming from. We also had to learn about our own biases and how to be aware of them, and to work consciously on checking them with ourselves and others. At the end of the day, though, like having a receipt when making a return, having testing was helpful, but not necessary, to making a good admissions decision.
The question of whether to “go test optional” is not one that started with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic despite its recent presence as a hot topic in the media. Institutions of higher education have been implementing more flexible testing requirements since Bowdoin College first adopted a test optional admission policy in 1969, and even more so in the last decade. Between 2004 and 2019, more than 300 institutions joined the test optional movement, including many of the most highly selective schools in the country ― Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, to name just a recent few. The largest customer of the College Board, the University of California, recently decided to implement a test optional policy for the next two years and may remove the requirement permanently This was not a decision without controversy; the UC Academic Senate voted 51-0 to keep standardized testing as a requirement for many very good reasons, including the fact that testing has a correlation to academic success at UC. The outgoing UC president as well as the University Board of Regents disagreed with the Senate’s ruling, however, and voted to phase out standardized testing as a requirement, citing it as detrimental to access for lower income and first-generation college students. In fact, in recent weeks, a California judge has issued a preliminary injunction barring use of the SAT and ACT altogether for all UC campuses. The national research on the success of enrollment and retention of underrepresented students at test optional colleges remains inconclusive, however.
Against this backdrop rose COVID-19 and the challenge of equal access to the SAT and ACT for testers across the nation and the world. It was for this specific reason, rather than greater issues or concerns associated with testing, that so many colleges have jumped on the test optional bandwagon over the past several months. And while it is tempting in some ways to co-opt admissions policies implemented by our higher education peers, secondary schools and colleges are not the same. The difference between a 13- or 14-year-old middle school student applying to ninth grade and a high school senior applying to college is significant, and what works for determining appropriate fit in one environment does not equally correspond to the other. Most importantly, the development of academic skills in preparation for college is only one aspect of boarding schools’ collective mission. In addition, boarding schools are significantly smaller residential communities than colleges and are made up of young people whose developmental and chronological ages cut a wide swath; those students are required to interact in many more arenas than just classes and residence halls such as required team-based extracurricular activities. Therefore, the “soft skills” boarding schools must consider in admissions review (e.g. getting along with classmates, open mindedness, independence, resiliency, grit, and the ability to communicate and advocate for oneself) are just as important as the quantitative data we analyze to determine academic readiness. This is why Loomis implements an admissions rubric that balances these factors, one which we review annually to ensure that it accurately captures both the quantitative and qualitative data we seek to make informed decisions about who would be a good fit for us. Because we have a balanced approach where we only use test scores to inform an entire picture of an applicant, the use and value of testing at Loomis has not been a static assumption over the years, but one of continued evaluation. Testing is a helpful metric to use on the objective side of that evaluation, because it can tell us more about an applicant’s academic preparation, especially given that there is no standard curricula across middle schools and grade inflation can make deciphering academic readiness challenging. But it’s not a necessary one.
Given this context, it was not difficult for Loomis Chaffee to decide to implement a test optional admissions policy for the next two years. We know that we can still make good decisions without test scores, and if removing this barrier for our applicants and their families alleviates just a little bit of the stress that students are feeling during this pandemic, we’re all for it. Anything we can do to make the admission process less anxiety-provoking for our prospective Pelicans without compromising our ability to determine if they are well suited for Loomis is always a focal point for discussion in our Admission Office ― not just in the new normal of pandemic life.
So, if you think your test results are a satisfactory reflection of what your grades will show us about your academic work, submit them. The benefit is that test scores do tell us a lot of really good information about you for the day you may become a Pelican. But if you don’t have scores that you think accurately represent your ability, or if you can’t afford to keep retaking the test to get the score you think will reflect it, or if you have trouble preparing for a test, or sitting for a test, it’s okay. We will meet you, read about you, and learn about your interests, talents, hopes, and dreams in other ways. In the words of journalist Malcolm Gladwell, “A law school that wants to select the best possible lawyers has to use a very different admission process from a law school that wants to select the best possible law students.” To employ Gladwell’s terms, at Loomis Chaffee we are educating lawyers, not law students.
For more information about Loomis Chaffee’s new test optional admissions policy, see www.loomischaffee.org/admission/apply/testing.