Akil Bello, Bell Curves Founding Partner & Former CEO, FairTest Director of Advocacy and Advancement, joins Yahoo Finance’s Aarthi Swaminathan, Kristin Myers and Alexis Christoforous to discuss outlook on standardized testing for the college application process.
KRISTIN MYERS: Welcome back. Many students are now graduating high school and heading off to college, but the pandemic has changed some of those college entry requirements, like no longer requiring those SAT tests that everyone absolutely dreads taking. Now, will they and should they stay the same after the pandemic is over?
Let's chat more about that with Akil Bello, Director of Advocacy and Advancement at Fair Test and the former CEO of the test prep service Bell Curves. We're also joined now by Yahoo Finance's Aarthi Swaminathan. Great to have you both with us here for this conversation.
So Akil, curious to know some of those changes, like that SAT test requirement, do you see that staying after the pandemic is over? And should students, when they are applying for college, say, yes, I absolutely need to take that SAT test, colleges actually do want to see that score? Or can they say, you know what, they actually don't care and just leave it off?
AKIL BELLO: So the first thing is that before the pandemic, about 50%, maybe 55% of colleges were test optional anyway. So the pandemic didn't change anything for those schools. Since the pandemic, that number increased at its height to about 72%.
So one of the issues that students face is what's the policy at the individual college that they plan to apply to? If the college, say in Florida where a lot of the public institutions did not go test optional, if the college still requires tests, they'll have to do it. So students' behavior is largely going to be driven by institutional policy and how long that policy is in place for. So it's hard to give an easy answer of yes, take it or no, don't take it.
AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Akil, there has been an entire industry developed to help students get this, might be a multi-million, might be multi-billion even. And we saw that sort of come to a head with the Varsity Blues scandal, where people started gaming the system. So can you just distill a little bit about the most valuable and least valuable aspects of this test industry?
AKIL BELLO: The value of the test industry, as in the test prep industry, to the college process it's fairly minimal. It actually hurts the college process. The value of testing to the college admissions process is also fairly minimal.
Testing predicts above GPA maybe five, six percentage points of first-year GPA. So if you just use high school GPA, you get a pretty good prediction of who's successful. You use testing in a college office and you add a little bit to that prediction. So to create a multi-billion dollar industry around administering and preparing for these tests seems like fairly minimal return on investment for the country.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Can you see a time, Akil, where, given what you just said, colleges across the board, including the Ivies, are going to say, we just don't see the value anymore in these standardized tests, they create more issues, more issues of equity than they're worth, and we're going to do away with them? Can you actually see a time-- and to Aarthi's point, there are a lot of people out there who have built industries on these exams and-- and prepping students for them. So there's a lot at stake for them. But can you see the universities and colleges actually saying, we're not going to take these tests anymore?
AKIL BELLO: Well, that time existed in the past and will continue to exist and grow, right. There are colleges, you know, since the-- since 1926 when the test was invented that didn't require the test. So it's not a natural intrinsic part of admissions. It is an intrinsic part of admissions at certain subset of schools, and that has changed and will continue to change. One of the complications is that there's no universal application process to all colleges.
Currently, public colleges in California will not consider standardized tests. There's a bill in New York state to replicate what California is doing. So there's absolutely going to be a point at which some-- there is currently, and will continue to be, some colleges that do not require testing at all, some that allow students to make the choice, and some that still require testing. The number that require testing will go down in the future. That's what I see happening.
AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Akil, I just want to ask you about the advanced placement tests. So even if you don't take the SAT or the ACT, a lot of students still take the AP exam. Can you just speak a little bit about whether you see that also fading or that still being such an essential thing for students to include in their admissions packet?
AKIL BELLO: So when you start talking about essential and requirements, the problem with those conversations is that they focus on a particular subset of schools. There are some colleges that are open access. There are some colleges that are highly rejective, and they reject far more students than they admit, because those schools are very popular, and in demand, and receive a great number of applications.
So what's required varies depending on the institution you're talking about and the-- and what that institution wants of their applicant. AP courses aren't required at any institution. They're just the practice. They're just commonly submitted at some institutions.
I see that those who have valued APs in the past will probably continue to value them and probably continue to award college credit for taking those tests. So again, student behavior is largely driven by college policy. So if colleges continue to require or reward credit for AP exams, then I see students continuing to take it. And those are better tests than the SAT and the ACT.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Yeah, they seem to be much more focused and students can, I guess, better prepare for that material because it is so tied to the class. But before we let you go, wanted your thoughts on your recommendation to students applying in the fall to college and wondering whether or not they should add that SAT or ACT score to a school that says it is optional? I think there's some thinking that, you know, when they're making those admissions decisions behind closed doors, the student who didn't include the test scores just has a mark against them, even if the school is not going to be fully transparent about it. What would your recommendation be to those students?
AKIL BELLO: One, I would say that students should be looking at that the same way we generally look at AP exam. You take it if it's helpful to you. So if you're going to do well, if it's a skill that you have, then it does make sense to submit it. If it is not a skill that you have, if you are not going to do well, if you don't have the money to invest in preparation to get your score to a competitive range, then it may not be worth it to you.
So overall, I think optional puts the onus on the students to make a decision of whether this is a strength or not. Colleges are fairly transparent about their policy, and not submitting a test score at the vast majority institutions is not necessarily a mark against them. Just like not taking APs is not necessarily a mark against you, it just means it's one potential feather in your cap that you may not have.
KRISTIN MYERS: Feels like applying to college is just getting harder and harder and harder with more and more things to consider, at least just in the last, I'm going to just say 10-plus years since I last applied to college. Akil Bello from Fair Test, Aarthi Swaminathan, thank you both for joining us.