Far fewer prospective college students submitted admissions test scores last year, report finds

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • Only about two-fifths of students who applied to college during the 2020-21 school year using the Common Application included their SAT or ACT scores, a sharp decline from the prior year when more than three-fourths of college prospects did so.
  • According to research conducted by the Common App, the online portal enables students to apply to 900 or so member colleges. Common App recorded a sharp drop in the number of its member institutions requiring test scores.
  • Common App found that first-generation and underrepresented minority students were also less likely to provide admissions exam scores than other applicants, crediting the argument that test-optional policies can help colleges draw more applications from these groups.

Dive Insight:

The pandemic upended a convention of college admissions when it forced K-12 schools and other common testing sites to close last year, limiting students’ ability to sit for entrance exams.

In response, colleges adopted temporary test-optional admissions rules en masse, though policy experts predict these will stick after the health crisis. More than two-thirds of bachelor’s-granting institutions aren’t requiring SAT and ACT scores for fall 2022, according to data from FairTest, an organization advocating for more equitable uses of standardized assessments. The group’s count includes test-optional colleges before the pandemic and those that have historically never asked for scores.

college students

Testing providers say exams give underrepresented students a way to stand out in college admissions. But advocates for test-optional entries say removing test scores from application requirements can eliminate roadblocks for disadvantaged students seeking college. Several studies found that test-optional policies modestly boost campus diversity.

The new research from Common App also seems to support the idea. Rates of students reporting test scores fell for both first-generation students and their peers for 2020-21. Only 30% of first-generation students provided test scores versus 48% of non-first-generation applicants. This is a wider gap than a nine percentage-point divide from the prior year when 69% of first-generation students submitted scores compared to 78% of their counterparts.

Similar trends played out for underrepresented minority applicants, which the Common App defined as Native American, Black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander applicants — 31% of these students included their scores. In comparison, 47% of other groups did.

Nearly 90% of the Common App member institutions did not mandate the scores. The organization noted that while colleges’ admissions policies likely influenced students’ decisions to report their results, its data suggests that so too, did testing sites shuttering in the spring and summer.

Common App also found the rates of students reporting scores were highest in some Southern and Midwestern states. Several Southern states are well-known for embracing assessments, including Florida and Georgia. Florida’s public colleges were a prominent holdout in maintaining their entrance exam requirements during the pandemic, and Georgia only allowed students to withhold their scores for one admissions season.

The report urges colleges to contemplate whether the SAT and ACT impose barriers for low-income and minority students. And it asks them to consider whether the information they glean from the tests is valuable enough to justify these potential roadblocks.

“Finally, institutions should continually monitor their admissions processes to determine whether components aside from standardized testing requirements may be undermining their stated aims to expand access and opportunity to a more diverse cohort of students,” the report states.

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