by Linda L. Esterson, photography by Nikola Tzenov
Colleges Leave Score Submissions to Students
Timmy Vishnyakov is headed to the University of Tampa this fall. He was accepted into the school’s honors program to study finance. But unlike his friends, Timmy elected to apply only to schools that did not require the SAT (formerly the Scholastic Aptitude Test) as part of the application.
“I’m not a good test taker when it came to standardized testing,” says Timmy. “I stayed away from the SAT.”
Timmy took the Preliminary SAT (PSAT) in ninth grade along with his classmates at Gerstell Academy in Finksburg, and his results were “not strong.” The standardized test was not a true indicator of his academic success — 3.8 grade point average and dual enrollment at CCBC and Carroll Community College, for 12 credits combined during his junior and senior years.
When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered testing centers in spring 2020, many colleges adjusted their testing requirements. Some made their applications test-optional for the SAT and the ACT (American College Test), based on barriers to testing — cost of the test, score submission and review courses; cancellations on the day of the test; and the risk of catching COVID during testing, says Vicki Keriazes, Gerstell Academy’s director of college guidance.
During the 2020-2021 school year, 33,457 Maryland test takers completed the SAT assessment, according to the College Board, the testing administrator. In its 2021 SAT Suite Annual Report for Maryland, The College Board shares that 47 percent of Class of 2021 graduates took the SAT during high school. The numbers were down significantly, as the 2020 SAT Suite Annual Report for Maryland shows 56,687 SAT test takers, 88 percent of 2020 graduates. The ACT, which tests in core academic areas like English, reading and science, reports about 8 percent of Maryland graduates were tested in 2021, compared to 19 percent in 2020.
“In a largely test-optional world, the SAT is a lower-stakes test in college admissions,” concedes Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of College Readiness Assessments at the College Board. “Submitting a score is optional for every type of college, and we want the SAT to be the best possible option for students. The SAT allows every student — regardless of where they go to high school — to be seen and to access opportunities that will shape their lives and careers.”
Rodriguez, a first-generation American, says the SAT “opened doors to colleges, scholarships and educational opportunities that I otherwise never would have known about or had access to. We want to keep those same doors of opportunity open for all students.”
According to Nicola Fagan, supervisor of student services-school counseling for Carroll County Public Schools, the top five schools applied to by CCPS students were the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP); University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); Towson University; Pennsylvania State University; and Salisbury University.
In mid-June, the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents voted that submitting SAT and ACT scores is no longer required for admission, with each school free to make its own policies on the matter. Students can submit their scores if they feel it would boost their application. UMBC’s website indicates the 25th-75th percentile score range is 1190-1360 for the combined verbal and math sections, enabling students to evaluate whether their test scores would benefit the application. Salisbury University requires the ACT or SAT for students with a GPA below a 3.5 weighted cumulative average, on a 4.0 scale.
The Salisbury website reads, “Applicants choosing to exclude standardized test scores should provide evidence of individual achievements and/or experiences which would not be evident from a review of the official high school transcripts. Leadership qualities, community service, artistic talent, athletic talent and diversity of background, including cultural, experiential and geographic, are additional factors used in the holistic review of each applicant.”
Some schools, like Dickinson College, Gettysburg College and Franklin & Marshall, dropped the requirements for pre-college testing long before the pandemic, and some, including Dickinson and those in the University of California System, are “test blind,” and will not review scores even if submitted.
“These schools discovered early on that standardized testing does not predict a student’s success,” says Keriazes.
McDaniel College in Westminster has had some form of test-optional policy since 2001. Until 2019, the policy was “partial test-optional,” with students needing to meet criteria to avoid score submission requirements, like being in the top 10 percent of their class or a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher, says Jill Centofanti, dean of admissions at McDaniel. In the fall of 2018, McDaniel became fully test-optional, reflecting its “holistic admission review” based on the student’s academic curriculum and rigor and the type of high school they attend. An admission essay enables assessment of their writing ability, preparation for the McDaniel curriculum and determination of what they would offer the school community.
“Some students excel in the classroom and take a challenging level of courses and do well, but their test scores don’t reflect that,” Centofanti says. “For many of those years prior to 2018, we did that so that students would have that option if they were in a higher academic category, if they felt that the test scores would negatively impact their view, as an applicant, we wanted to be able to alleviate that concern. We have always come from a place of admission without anxiety.”
Fagan says she was not surprised by the changes to the application requirements for the majority of schools based on the pandemic. But, she says, the test-optional allowance does not always mean a student should refrain from submitting scores.
“If a student is applying to a competitive college and they would like to submit a strong application they may consider taking and submitting the test scores,” she says.
In some cases, the SAT is used to determine merit scholarships and enrollment into specific programs within the school. Hannah Kepler, who attended Westminster High School, took the SAT three times, and it helped her gain direct admission to the nursing program at Stevenson University, says her mother, Mary Beth Kepler. Mary Beth’s stepson, Ben Poindexter, took the SAT also to compete for scholarships. Ben attended Winters Mill High School and will attend Salisbury University in the fall to study business.
Julie Vishnyakov suggested Timmy enroll in a review class to raise his scores. “It would have been a big uplift, taking most of the summer, to get to the level beneficial for him to submit the scores versus not to submit,” she says. “It wasn’t even a guarantee that even after taking the review class that he would have been at the level that would be helpful for the colleges.” Timmy was scheduled to take the SAT at Gerstell, knowing that he could opt not to send the score to his schools of choice. However, the test was canceled due to COVID and not rescheduled. No other test date or location was available.
Julie felt he should have taken the test, but knew a costly and time-consuming review class would impact his ability to work over the summer. She conducted her own research, realizing many schools had altered the application process to be test-optional.
Timmy felt his GPA, the dual enrollment, his resume and the rest of his application would suffice. He played lacrosse and soccer and also held paying jobs during the summer.
Like Timmy, Daniela Gutman is a strong student, finishing her high school career with a 3.7 GPA. Her strength is in English and grammar. The Gerstell graduate took the PSAT in school, and true to form, her math scores were not as high. She attributes some of her difficulty to testing anxiety.
“I do struggle with that,” she says. “I struggled to do well on assessments even though I knew everything.”
So when it came time to take the SAT, she was less than thrilled. With her mother’s encouragement, she worked with a tutor for a summer and took the test.
“My score did improve, but I just don’t think it really accurately captured my ability in anything other than reading and grammar,” she says.
She excluded the test results from her applications to Stevenson, James Madison University, UMBC, McDaniel, UMCP and Towson. Five of the six accepted Daniela into their freshman class. She will start this fall at UMBC, where she plans to major in psychology and minor in Spanish.
The test-optional application may not remain for all schools, as many have seen an increase in applications as a result.
“There certainly is more likely potential for schools in that situation to require [tests] when we get to a place where the students are getting the college preparation in high school the same way they used to pre-pandemic,” Centofanti says. “I certainly would imagine there are some of the schools that were looking at this as a temporary solution to an extraordinary time, but I think it will vary tremendously institution to institution.”
Keriazes, however, believes test-optional applications will remain part of the process. Data is “starting to come out” that without these tests to predict student success, students have been admitted to college and thrived while part of the student population.
“I think test-optional 100 percent is here to stay,” she says.” And I think more and more schools will be going test-optional moving forward. The schools that have remained test-optional will remain test-optional.”