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How I Found Hope in Standardized Tests

This month, the University of Texas at Austin joined the wave of selective universities reversing Covid era test-optional admissions policies, once again requiring students to submit ACT or SAT scores.

Many schools have embraced the test-optional rule under the assumption that it would bolster equity and diversity, since higher scores are correlated with privilege. But it turns out that these policies harmed the teenagers they were supposed to help. Many low-income and minority students withheld scores that could have gotten them in, wrongly assuming that their scores were too low, according to an analysis by Dartmouth. More top universities are sure to join the reversal. This is a good thing.

I was one of the disadvantaged youths who are often failed by test-optional policies, striving to get into college while in foster care and homeless. We hear a lot about the efforts of these elite schools to attract diverse student bodies and about debates around the best way to assemble a class. What these conversations overlook is the hope these tests offer students who are in difficult situations.

For many of us, standardized tests provided our one shot to prove our potential, despite the obstacles in our lives or the untidy pasts we had. We found solace in the objectivity of a hard number and a process that — unlike many things in our lives — we could control. I will always feel tenderness toward the Scantron sheets that unlocked higher education and a better life.

Growing up, I fantasized about escaping the chaos of my family for the peace of a grassy quad. Both my parents had mental health issues. My adolescence was its own mess. Over two years I took a dozen psychiatric drugs while attending four different high school programs. At 14, I was sent to a locked facility where my education consisted of work sheets and reading aloud in an on-site classroom. In a life skills class, we learned how to get our G.E.D.s. My college dreams began to seem like delusions.

Then one afternoon a staff member handed me a library copy of “Barron’s Guide to the ACT.” I leafed through the onionskin pages and felt a thunderclap of possibility. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without permission, let alone take Advanced Placement Latin or play water polo or do something else that would impress elite colleges. But I could teach myself the years of math I’d missed while switching schools and improve my life in this one specific way.

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