Rejoicings, Complications, and a Few Grey Hairs: Test-Optional Outside the US

By: Anne Richardson and Chemeli Kipkorir

Editor’s note: In August 2020, NACAC released a report urging colleges and universities to examine their policies and practices concerning standardized tests and their potential impact on equity and access. This column is the third in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.

Much has been written about the sudden, COVID-propelled test-optional movement inside of the US, and the blessings and complications that this movement has wrought for students, counselors, and admission offices there. Outside of the US, this same move to test-optional—plus the end of SAT Subject Tests and the SAT essay—has provoked mixed reactions: celebrations for students who are US-bound, but also concerns about potentially narrower options for students studying in a US curriculum who wish to travel abroad for university.

Test-optional is a difficult concept internationally. Outside of the US, students have always faced a test-oriented university admission process. Many international curricula culminate in a series of “leaving” tests—A-levels, International Baccalaureate exams, Advanced Placement exams, the Abitur, and the gaokao to name but a few—which universities require for admission. Often these exams are used instead of transcripts, and universities use both predicted test results and actual results as their best predictors of success. At the UK’s University of St. Andrews, for example, admission officials say “accurate prediction of likely university performance of international students is essential in promoting student retention and success…as well as determining possible support needs. Making admissions decisions based on the best available information is critical.”

St. Andrews has long accepted US applications and was one of the few UK universities to go test-optional for US applicants during COVID. Its model and results are encouraging for other UK institutions. St. Andrews requires applicants to submit a transcript as part of the application, which helps support the test-optional model. According to college officials: “Generally, our US-based curriculum applicants have presented honours and AP courses. In the longer term we are tracking 2020/21 and 2021/22 admitted students to see how their outcomes may or may not differ from previous cohorts. Preliminary findings suggest that students admitted in 2020/21 are performing at similar outcomes; however the comparisons are unlike any other year.”

For international students who wish to go to the US, the test-optional movement has been a boon. Faced with much higher testing costs, frequent and often last-minute cancellations, and hours (sometimes days) of travel͞—as referenced in the most recent NACAC testing report—the advent of test-optional for international students and the increasing acceptance by US universities of Duolingo as a measure of English proficiency, have made the process easier and fairer for international students.

However, no one is counseling moving away from testing yet. SAT/ACT testing continues to be required by institutions outside of the US for students presenting US credentials. And even for students applying only to the US, as one international counselor from South Africa put it: “We continue to strongly encourage students to take the SAT although many colleges (will) continue with their test-optional policies (this coming year.) For high-need international students, colleges seem to feel more comfortable admitting those with higher testing.” And counselors are wary of previous testing practices returning post-COVID. One counselor notes, “This was the practice at many test-optional schools pre-pandemic; many were test-optional for domestic students, but not for international students. Given that that was their stance before, we thought it prudent to advise our students to continue to study for and take the SAT to prove to colleges that they are worthy of their investment.” According to David Hawkins, an independent educational consultant in the UK: “For international students heading to the US, though the level of uncertainty is troubling with ongoing test cancellations and an unequal footing for score reporting between domestic and international students, test-optional admissions is a benefit. The SAT and ACT test skills that are unlike anything most students in other parts of the world will have done; multiple-choice testing is not the norm in most parts of the world. Students with stellar high school grades would often be disadvantaged by the need to take an SAT or ACT score; now they need only use their rigorous A-level, Abitur, French Baccalaureate, or Irish Leaving Certificate scores to demonstrate their level of academic achievement and ability.”

However, test-optional, not to mention test-blind, has also provoked disbelief and anxiety. What has been difficult to navigate for both domestic and international students, families, and counselors is the lack of consistency and transparency as to what test-optional actually means and what this does in a test-oriented curriculum. Understanding the nuances of how testing requirements vary from one school to the next has demanded extra time and attention from college counselors and has resulted in a few grey hairs. In addition, a South Korean college counselor states: “Universities who are sitting on the COVID fence, not saying whether they will continue with test-optional or not, are doing students a disservice because younger years still feel the pressure to prepare for tests that may not be needed in the end.”

As US colleges and universities reflect on their testing policies and as COVID comes more under control and schools re-open, this is a moment to re-imagine university admission, bearing in mind the suggested guidelines as outlined in the NACAC report and reflecting on them specifically with respect to international students:

  • Be student-centered. Are your policies student-centered and focused on student success?
  • Focus on student success. Reviewing the data and extending test-optional policies for at least four years will allow for important data regarding student success.
  • Have policies that are transparent and clearly stated. This has not yet happened.
  • Consider unintended consequences. As the report clearly states: “When colleges and universities no longer utilize SAT or ACT scores, and other measures of academic achievement become more important in determining who is admitted, does this place new pressures on secondary schools?”

In general, international counselors interviewed in China, South Korea, South Africa, and the UK agree that the move to test-optional has been positive for students wishing to go to university in the US. Ultimately, however, outside of the US, test-optional does not really exist. Most international students and US students wishing to study internationally in the coming years will still need to take tests.

Anne Richardson chaired the NACAC International Initiatives Committee, chaired the International ACAC Ad-Hoc Committee on Testing, and was a member of the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students. She is currently a university adviser and the director of the Office of Student Advising at The American School in London.

Chemeli Kipkorir is a college counselor at the Shanghai American School, Puxi campus. Prior to joining the school in 2019, Chemeli worked with HALI students at African Leadership Academy in South Africa. She has college admission experience having previously worked in the US at her alma mater, The College of Wooster (OH). She was also a member of the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students and is an active member of International ACAC.

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