SAT Score? No, But Check Out How I Did on the Gaokao!

A couple of news items grabbed my attention in June.  First, the universe of test-optional schools expanded with the addition of a top-ten institution, the University of Chicago.


Just say no to standardized tests?

Test-optional schools are what the label implies:  students are not required to submit SAT/ACT scores when applying.  The “test-optional” practice has become increasingly popular, with 100 colleges adopting the practice during the last five years.  Why is this becoming popular?  From my vantage point I see good – and perhaps not so good – reasons.

Some students just do not test well.  Students with learning disabilities who need extra time sometimes do not receive accommodations, or do not benefit from them.  Standardized tests stand accused of cultural bias – asking questions which presuppose knowledge that students not raised in “mainstream” America lack.  The “test-prep” industry, which often only the wealthy can afford – can boost some students’ scores at the expense of their less financially endowed competitors.  In other words, in some cases the tests simply do not measure students’ academic potential.

However, some colleges adopting this practice are being more strategic rather than altruistic.  Colleges are businesses, and once you get beyond the top 100 colleges, demand for places starts to ebb.  Many of those “test-optional” institutions are small private colleges.

“Going test-optional” enlarges the pool of interested students.  See  In a few cases, those extra students can be essential for financial survival of the institution.

Schools that go this route can obtain another benefit – selective reporting.  Students with low standardized test scores who stand to be admitted for other reasons (e.g., legacy admissions, athletic scholarships) are most likely to not submit those scores.  When the school reports its admission statistics, its average standardized test scores for admitted students will rise commensurately.  This makes the college appear more selective, which can affect its rating in reference lists such as U.S. News and World Report.  These colleges get the best of all possible worlds:  more applicants, higher reported test scores, and a few rungs up the “prestige” ladder for schools (which in turn prompts more students to apply).

A few “test-optional” colleges have “refined” this concept by requiring submission of standardized test scores to obtain financial aid.  This appears to be an obvious “pay to play” plan, where students with poor test scores are not required to report them if all they seek is admission.  If those students are admitted, they subsidize their better testing peers by paying full tuition.

Many – but not all – top colleges have resisted adopting a “test-optional” policy because of the stigma attached.  The SAT and ACT are marks of quality (however imperfect); announcing that they are no longer required for admission suggests a lack of rigor.  This is increasingly the case because widespread grade inflation is making GPAs less reliable for distinguishing among students.

This is what makes the decision by the University of Chicago so surprising.  It is an elite institution with perhaps the most “cerebral” reputation of them all.  This was where the Manhattan Project helped win WWII, and the Chicago School of Economics changed economic policy around the world.  This is the university famous for its admissions essay questions – a few years back applicants were invited to explain “what is odd about odd numbers”?  The university is known as the place “where fun goes to die,” because everyone is so busy studying.  These students run an intellectual gauntlet second to none.

Perhaps most important, the University does not need more prestige – it already ranks #3 on the all-important U.S. News and World Report list of top colleges.  Thus, when the University of Chicago goes “test-optional”, the world of higher education pays attention.

So why did the University do it?  It cites some of the “good” reasons stated above; it is coupling the move with an increase in financial aid for families earning under $125,000.  If there were also strategic motives behind the plan, they were not announced.  (No surprise there.)

Two questions remain.  First, will this change the demographic of admitted students at the University?  Will more minority and students with learning disabilities apply, and will they be accepted?  Second, will other schools follow the University’s lead?

We will have to wait a few years to find the answers to both questions.  In the meantime, the “test-optional” movement just gained a significant boost.

Students considering test-optional schools should carefully evaluate the testing policies of individual colleges – they can differ in important respects.  College counselors can add value here.


The rise of the gaokao

Meanwhile, there was another standardized test in the news this week – the gaokao.  This one dwarfs the SAT and ACT in almost every respect.  About 3 million U.S. students take the SAT or ACT, while approximately 9 million Chinese students sit for the gaokao.  Like some European countries, the gaokao is the most important, if not the only, data used by Chinese colleges for admission.

The gaokao is a nine-hour exam given over two days.  Compulsory subjects include Chinese, mathematics, and, usually, English (students can substitute other languages); students also sit for an additional subject depending upon whether they are pursuing STEM or other careers.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the gaokao to Chinese students.  The results determine which colleges students can attend and the majors they may pursue there once admitted.

Many students compress their high school careers so that they can graduate early and spend the next year cramming for the exam.

The hype around the exam makes stories about test anxiety in the United States seem tame.  Per the South China Morning Post:

Hengshui Middle School in Hebei province, where more than 100 students earned admission to the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.

Similar stories abound.  See (referred to as “the Atlantic article”).

The Atlantic article suggests that the growing number of Chinese students seeking to attend college overseas are driven by worry about – and disdain for – the gaokao.  It notes that Chinese students taking the SAT and ACT are under similar pressure, and links that pressure with the recent wave of cheating scandals on all three exams in Asia.  (The penalties are a bit stiffer for cheating on the gaokao – cheaters are banned from retaking the test for years, and those caught facilitating cheating face prison sentences of up to seven years.  See

The gaokao and the SAT/ACT share one justification – identifying talent.  The archetypical example in China is the student in the rural provinces who would otherwise have been consigned to a life of farming but did well enough on the gaokao to change her life.  It is ironic that the SAT/ACT are threatened in the U.S. while the gaokao remains dominant in China.

One reason for the dominance of the gaokao is that for many Chinese students, the test is the only guaranteed authentic mark of achievement and talent.

From the Atlantic article:

Guessing the percentage of fraudulent transcripts in applications from China is a popular parlor game among educators over here. Unscientific estimates abound: One prominent agent who works with students at some of the best high schools in China recently estimated to me that at least half of the transcripts in China are doctored to look like the students have done well in a robust high school curriculum, when the reality is one of almost constant memorization and practice tests. Unfortunately, no one in the college prep industry in China would be surprised if the actual percentage was significantly higher.

The Chinese system poses a challenge for U.S. colleges who tout their “holistic college admissions” processes.  How can they distinguish among foreign students who spend all of their time studying for one exam, and whose transcripts, even if produced, may be fraudulent?

The obvious answer is to consider the results of the exam.  After all, colleges rely on the TOEFL exam to assess competency in English.

And so it begins.  Newspapers this week trumpeted the decision by the University of New Hampshire to consider the gaokao.  But UNH is only the first public university to do so – the University of San Francisco (“USF”) started accepting the gaokao in 2015.  Dozens of universities in Australia, Canada, and Europe accept it.

This article from Inside Hire Ed reporting on USF’s program is skeptical that many U.S. universities will follow, mostly because the timing of the gaokao conflicts with the admissions cycle:

We shall see.  When 9 million test-takers sit for an exam, the number of “underperformers” is in the seven-digit range.  It is therefore no surprise that U.S. universities are after some of those test-takers, preferably those who will pay full tuition in the United States.

Per the USF administrator in charge of Chinese admissions:

He anticipates that USF will set gaokao cutoff scores equivalent to the marks needed to get into a first-tier Chinese university in each province, plus or minus a few points. Students who are admitted based on their gaokao scores will pay their own way, though Nel said they could be eligible for merit scholarships of up to $20,000 per year.

Brave words, but I doubt that the high standard will be maintained.  After all, the goal of almost every student who takes the gaokao is to snag a spot in a first-tier Chinese university.  Very few will trade that for a spot at most U.S. colleges.  Expect lower, less publicized, standards as this practice grows.

And it will grow.  With 337,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges, and financial pressures on those colleges increasing as public funding continues to lag, do not be surprised when this practice spreads throughout our American system of higher education.

Ken Rosenblatt — Tucson College Counselor

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