How to Understand the Changes in Standardized Testing

Change has come to standardized testing, and not just college admissions exams like the SAT and ACT. Private grade schools are also altering the way they view testing.

For a variety of reasons, many colleges have chosen to go test-optional, meaning they no longer require test scores with student applications, or test-blind, meaning will not take test scores into consideration even when they are submitted. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, private elementary, middle and high schools are following suit with admissions tests like the SSAT, ISEE and the HSPT.

“For admissions offices at all levels of education, the shift to test-optional is driven in large part by the need to keep application volume high,” says Brian Galvin, chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors. “Faced with testing challenges and decreasing applicant flow, schools had to look for a way to reduce barriers. Foregoing tests was an easy way to handle that.”

Admissions Tests for Private Schools

At the college level, the ACT, or American College Testing, is used to measure knowledge a student already possesses. The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is designed to predict what a student is capable of learning. Both exams have been in use for decades, with colleges and universities generally requiring one or the other for admissions.

At the grade-school level, a different set of tests exists. The SSAT, or Secondary School Admission Test, may be the best known. It is a private school entrance exam for grades three through 11 that focuses on a student’s verbal, math and reading skills. Components include math problems, vocabulary and analogy questions, reading passages and a writing sample.

The ISEE, or Independent School Entrance Exam, has multiple testing levels for students in grades two through 12. The test sections, which vary by grade level, can include reading, mathematics, verbal, quantitative reasoning and a writing sample.

The HSPT, or High School Placement Test, is given in eighth grade to determine admission to certain Catholic high schools. The test is made up of five parts: verbal, quantitative, reading, language arts and math.

The Trend Away From Testing

While the pandemic altered the thinking about standardized testing, Galvin says that even prior to the pandemic there was a growing acknowledgement that standardized tests don’t necessarily represent how students might perform.

“There’s been a recent wave of ideological pushback against standardized tests, and the test-optional and test-blind trends reflect some of that,” he says.

Constance Borro, founder of Ivy Tutor Connection in Ohio, agrees the pandemic acted as a catalyst for educational institutions to reconsider the value of testing.

“There’s a realization that mastery of material, the ability to perform under pressure and to persist at a task, and to think critically are skills that cannot be captured in a test,” she says.

Equity also plays a part in the changing attitude toward standardized testing. Education is often seen as an equalizer, but critics say that testing can be inherently unequal because students from low-income families often cannot access the same preparation courses and materials as students from wealthy families.

Borro says admissions officers know that the ability to pay for test prep may correlate with higher test scores, and are relying less on testing for admissions as a result.

Christine Chu, a former assistant director of undergraduate admissions at both Yale and Georgetown, says that secondary schools are likely to continue following colleges and making admission test scores optional. But she also says this approach is still an experiment.

“High schools will likely keep reviewing their test-optional policies,” she says.

How to Navigate Standardized Testing Changes

So, what can parents do to help their children with applications? Education experts say there are several solid strategies. Testing has always been just one data point on an application. Without it, the other indicators may become more important.

“With a test-optional policy, admission-based high schools continue to utilize other components to evaluate applications, including academic records, recommendations, essays and interviews,” Chu says.

Here are some things that families can do:

Know your school’s policy. Most schools are very transparent about how they treat testing. Make sure you understand the policy. If information on their website is insufficient, reach out and ask questions.

Take the test. Chu says it is a good idea for students to prepare and take an entrance exam. If the scores are good and the school can use them, that’s a benefit. If they are tepid, you may not have to reveal them to the school.

Broaden your child’s experience. Without testing, schools will be looking closely at other aspects of the application. Many have been increasingly interested in how applicants have contributed to the community. Volunteering and other community work is becoming a requirement.

Practice interviewing. Some schools require an interview as part of the admissions process. Borro recommends that students do practice interviews with adults to build confidence. In addition, they can schedule their first interviews at schools that are not a top choice as a way to boost experience before interviewing at the school they really want to attend.

Borro says parents and students should remember that the individuality displayed in an interview often carries the day. “Kids are kids, and if their personality shines through and they are a delight to be around, the admissions officer will be interested,” she says.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

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