By Gabriel Blanchard

Why test in a test-optional world?

In recent years, the test-optional movement—in which standardized test scores are no longer required for college admissions—has gained considerable steam. The Michigan state House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to remove SAT scores from public school students’ transcripts, part of a bill which is now being debated by the state’s upper house; in so doing, it joins several other states that have endorsed test-optional policies, including Colorado, Illinois, Montana, Washington, and, as of this January, Iowa.

With or without governmental initiatives of this kind, many individual colleges have made similar moves, notably Harvard. The prestigious University of California system (which covers ten colleges across the state, including UC Berkeley and UCLA) has gone even further, instituting a test-blind policy, which means that even if students choose to submit test scores, the college in question will not use them to evaluate the application.

Various factors are at work in the test-optional movement. Measures taken to deal with the spread of COVID-19, like social distancing and remote learning, naturally made access to most standardized exams far more difficult, prompting many colleges to institute test-optional policies at least temporarily. (CLT, which has been offered online from its inception and has continued serving students through the pandemic, stands virtually alone in this respect.) Supporters of continuing or returning to exams like the SAT and ACT have expressed concerns that relying purely on students’ high school grades does not account for the possibility of grade inflation or for the differences in instructional quality between different schools. Relying on a nationally standardized test, they aver, does address these issues and thus help colleges correctly identify gifted students. Supporters of the test-optional movement argue that over-reliance on test scores disproportionately affects disadvantaged students, such as the poor and racial minorities, who may be particularly in need of college and the benefits it can bring; moreover, a number of studies suggest that the linkage between things like SAT scores and college graduation may not be as firm as one would assume.

All this leaves the future of college entry exams in doubt. So if the test-optional movement proves triumphant, where does that leave the CLT? Is it apt to go the way of the one-room schoolhouse? I believe not, for three reasons.

The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and dorm rooms and in places of worship. ... The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, make your life yours; and everything, everything, will be on it.

First, while many schools have gone test-optional, comparatively few are test-blind. Over eighteen hundred US colleges have gone test-optional, either permanently or as a concession to pandemic-related testing difficulties (concessions which may later become permanent); however, only forty-four have become test-blind. Moreover, some schools, such as MIT, have experimented with making score submissions optional, but returned to requiring them later. Test-optional institutions still, as the name implies, have the option of reviewing students’ scores on college entry exams and including them in decisions about whether to accept applicants. The mere practical usefulness of standardized tests has not gone away.

Second, while the CLT is recognized as an entry exam by hundreds of colleges and universities, its value extends far further than that. Tests of all kinds allow parents and teachers to evaluate their students’ mastery of the material they have been taught, and that will still be true whether they are used in college entry or not. Thanks to our comprehensive Student Analytics, which highlight students’ strengths and weaknesses and help identify strategies for future teaching, CLT is poised to be especially valuable in this regard.

But the third and most important reason is also the simplest: the Classic Learning Test isn’t going anywhere because classic learning isn’t going anywhere. The history of western thought is, to a degree, a history of the recurring return to that glittering fountain. The Scholastic revolution in the twelfth century, the Renaissance in the fifteenth, the classical renewal movement in our own day—all three involved the dusting off of books that had been not lost, but neglected, and a new generation discovering, with a shock like first love, a beauty that had till then been concealed from their eyes. As long as that keeps happening, the CLT is going to remain relevant. It’s what we’re all about.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank, covering the men and women whose texts we use to create every CLT, and led by academics from all over the country. If you’d like to see some of the outstanding results this kind of education produces, check out our regular student contributions to the Journal, including academic essays, poems, and short stories.

Published on 29th March, 2022.

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