High School Admissions Are Test-Blind in Effort to Promote Equity

The admissions office. Photo by Hercules Zhang.

Prior to the pandemic, high school applicants were required to submit the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) or the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) as part of their applications to GDS. In the fall of 2020, the GDS admissions office decided not to accept test scores from prospective students. 

The SSAT and ISEE assess students’ reading comprehension, math skills and vocabulary. Director of Enrollment Management Chris Levy spoke to the admissions team; they decided that, beginning during the 2020 admissions cycle, they would not accept tests from applicants. The lower/middle school also stopped accepting test scores at the same time.

Director of High School Admissions Amanda Deringer said that she and her colleagues in the admissions office were concerned that not all students had equal access to the internet. During the pandemic, students were required to take the SSAT and ISEE online.

According to a 2021 New York Times article, two-thirds of U.S. colleges transitioned to test-optional or test-blind admissions during the pandemic. D.C. private schools made a similar transition, with Sidwell Friends and Maret, for example, no longer accepting SSAT or ISEE tests for their middle and high schools.

While the pandemic led to the decision to stop accepting standardized tests, Deringer said that she and others in the admissions office also had different concerns. Deringer said that not all applicants had access to preparation resources, like textbooks and practice tests, so requiring tests would be inequitable. For example, while some families could hire a tutor for their children, other families could not afford one.

According to Senior Director of High School Admissions Elaine Scott, when students apply to GDS, they submit their application through an online admission portal called Ravenna. The application consists of a writing sample and a student questionnaire that asks about extracurricular activities and interests. Students also submit letters of recommendation from their teachers and are interviewed by a member of the admissions office in person with their parents.

Deringer worried that tests were not an accurate representation of a prospective student’s academic ability. “It’s just a snapshot on one Saturday morning of how a student takes a test,” she told the Bit.

Junior Ben Fitzpayne had to take the SSAT when he applied to GDS as an eighth grader. While he thinks that his score helped his application, he has mixed feelings about whether tests should be part of the application process. Fitzpayne said he thinks that tests are a more equitable part of the application process than grades from middle school. “People might have different grading systems in middle school,” Fitzpayne told the Bit. He added that the math and English skills that standardized tests assess “are valuable indicators of how someone will succeed in high school.” However, Fitzpayne added that tests may also be inequitable, because not everyone has access to practice tests or tutors.

Freshman Asher Steiner said he is glad he was not required to take a standardized test when applying to GDS. “Personally, I’m not great with huge written tests,” he said. He added that his grades were likely a more accurate representation of his academic ability.

According to Deringer, the data the admissions office receives from a student’s test scores does not provide them with enough information about how successful that student will be at GDS. “You can be successful in so many different ways. You can have really high test scores but not be the kind of student who hands in their homework or contributes to class discussions,” Deringer said.

Deringer was also concerned that tests added an unnecessary element of stress to 8th graders’ lives. “We didn’t think it was super healthy for 8th graders to be so concerned about submitting a test,” Deringer said.

Freshman Jordyn Hammonds said they are glad they did not have to take a test when applying to GDS in 8th grade. “I would’ve just been really nervous for a test,” Hammonds told the Bit. Hammonds said that the purpose of GDS is to help students build study habits and test-taking skills, and it would be unfair to test students before they have the opportunity to develop those skills.

Freshman Helena Oscherwitz agreed that getting rid of tests was the right decision, but she would have liked to take a test for her own application. 

Oscherwitz said that she is good at taking tests, so she thinks that being able to submit a test when applying to GDS would have increased her chances of being accepted. In general, though, she does not support tests as part of the application process. “Tests don’t really matter that much, because I feel like the same thing that a test can tell you is also told by your grades,” Oscherwitz told the Bit. 

Deringer said that data, in general, is helpful to the admissions office. However, she added that she did not think a standardized test “was the most indicative of what we think of as students’ success.”