How the national test-optional experiment played out at US colleges

by Joseph K. Clark

Practically none of the high school students who tested tutor Jennifer Jessie worked knew about test-optional admissions before the pandemic. As she calls them, her kids weren’t even aware that some of the well-known public colleges near where she’s based in northern Virginia — like George Mason and James Madison universities — didn’t require SAT and ACT scores pre-pandemic. That changed as the coronavirus crisis overturned conventions of college admissions and brought broad recognition to test-optional policies. As the pandemic closed testing sites, most four-year colleges that required entrance exams temporarily abandoned them.

Test scores are entwined in campus operations. Supporters of entrance exams claim they offer a standard way of measuring applicants’ academic prowess. And at many institutions, they inform course placement, scholarship awards, and enrollment projections. Research indicates that the SAT and ACT favor White and wealthy students over poor, Black, and Hispanic ones. Their many functions dissuade college officials from extracting the exams from admissions processes. But this is the aim of the tests’ critics, who argue that doing so would encourage campus diversity.

Jessie, who works with many Black and low-income students, said some already mistrusted colleges and felt overlooked. And so, they thought officials would shun their applications if they submitted them without scores. One saw the policy as a pity move, Jessie said, only put in place because students couldn’t sit for the tests in the coronavirus era. “No one wants to go in being pitied,” she said.

Colleges delivered inconsistent and ambiguous messaging on their test-optional rules, with some sending signals that even though they would let students apply without the scores, officials still valued them. Many institutions went test-optional for the first time last year, creating an entirely new but uncertain landscape for admissions that don’t eliminate the tests. Still, admissions experts believe these policies open doors for students whom higher education has historically boxed out. Their skepticism may be warranted. “This is a first step in the right direction,” Jessie said.

US colleges

A movement put into overdrive.

The pandemic hastened the burgeoning test-optional movement — more than two-thirds of all four-year universities in the U.S. didn’t demand test scores from at least some applicants for fall 2021, according to a database kept by FairTest, a group advocating for narrow uses of standardized assessments. This dataset includes test-optional schools before the health crisis, though fewer than 50 schools adopted policies between September 2018 and September 2019 by FairTest’s count.

Decision-making in higher ed is often a case of follow-the-leader. Shifting to test-flexible admissions during the pandemic was no exception. Almost all universities in the Ivy League announced they wouldn’t require test scores within about two weeks of each other in June 2020. In April that year, the same pattern occurred with many liberal arts schools ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report. Other schools made the same move between the spring and late summer of 2020.

Dates the Ivy League announced test-optional policies
InstitutionDate Announced
Cornell UniversityApril 22, 2020
Columbia UniversityJune 2, 2020
Dartmouth CollegeJune 3, 2020
University of PennsylvaniaJune 4, 2020
Brown UniversityJune 12, 2020
Yale UniversityJune 12, 2020
Harvard UniversityJune 15, 2020
Princeton UniversityJune 18, 2020

“Colleges watch one another,” FairTest’s executive director, Bob Schaeffer, said.

One prominent holdout was Florida’s public colleges, whose governing body resisted calls to go test-optional during the pandemic with little explanation. Recently, the University System of Georgia said it would once again mandate scores beginning with students applying to start in the spring.

Some southern states have zealously embraced test-based education, Schaeffer noted. Two mammoth state scholarship programs in Georgia and ones in Florida and Louisiana stipulate standardized test scores.

Yet schools are sticking with test-optional in significant numbers. At least 1,400 institutions will have the policies in fall 2022, according to FairTest. (This encompasses schools that were test-optional before the health crisis and those that use tests in a limited manner.) “We are ecstatic,” Schaeffer said. “Test-optional is becoming the new norm.”

Many schools are reaping benefits, too, with selective institutions particularly enjoying record application numbers. The Common Application, the online system enabling students to reach 900 member colleges, reported about 6.2 million applications as of May 31, compared to about 5.6 million last year. (Some schools outside the top-ranked ones didn’t experience an application surge.)

A new kind of review

Colleges sought different ways to review applications with test scores off the table. Those to Cornell, which in April 2020 became the first Ivy League school to shift test-optional, rose about 30% to around 67,000 total, said Jon Burdick, its vice provost for enrollment.

The university’s application readers are “pretty seasoned,” Burdick said, but officials wanted a way to train them to review applications without test scores. During a virtual session last summer, admissions officials showed readers a series of year-old transcripts from one high school where students frequently put in a bid to Cornell. Based on the information on the application, the readers needed to rate it on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the strongest, using a polling feature on Zoom.

Burdick said that readers mostly landed within one point of each other, building their confidence in working without the scores. Transcripts are one of several factors the school uses to evaluate applications. He said the readers were primarily concerned about tackling the increased application numbers, as the university didn’t add more readers.

Dates flagship schools announced test-optional policies.

InstitutionDate Announced
University of MontanaApril 17, 2020
University of California, BerkeleyMay 21, 2020
University of VirginiaJune 4, 2020
University of DelawareJune 9, 2020
Ohio State UniversityJune 22, 2020
The University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignJune 23, 2020
University of UtahJune 26, 2020
University of VermontJuly 13, 2020
The University of North Carolina at Chapel HillJuly 23, 2020
University of Wisconsin-MadisonJuly 29, 2020
University of MissouriAugust 5, 2020
University of KentuckyAugust 13, 2020
University of IowaAugust 14, 2020
University of Nebraska-LincolnAugust 17, 2020
University of GeorgiaAugust 26, 2020

At Michigan State University, applications swelled about 11%, to 51,000 or so, following its move to test-optional for fall 2021, said John Ambrose, director of undergraduate admissions. As admissions officials delved into reading applications without scores, they used GPAs to create a benchmark.

For applicants from a subset of high schools where students often apply to MSU, officials looked at how prior students from those high schools fared during their first term to calculate an expected GPA.

To gauge the expected performance of fall 2021 applicants from high schools other than one of the regulars, the university created a ratio comparing fall 2019 entrants’ high school and first-time Michigan State GPAs. Officials used that figure to project fall 2021 entrants’ first-time Michigan State GPAs based on their high school averages.

Research has shown that high school GPA can be a more robust indicator of college success than standardized exams. The potential GPA was just one of several admissions criteria officials considered when reviewing applications, Ambrose said.

Because admissions officials traveled less during the pandemic, they had more time to review applications. And they will get a lot of practice assessing them without test scores for a few years. The university entered a five-year test-optional pilot, which Ambrose said will give officials enough time to gather data on cohorts with high shares of admits with no scores before deciding whether to make the policy permanent.

Impact on Diversity

Many institutions Tully converted to test-optional before the pandemic started by trying it out — and they typically did not revert to their old policies. A pilot partially gives schools time, as Michigan State does, to benchmark students’ academic performance against those who entered without scores to determine whether the policy is worth continuing.

Such is the case at Middlebury College, a selective liberal arts school in Vermont, which began a three-year test-optional trial last year. About half of the applicants filed without test scores, said Nicole Curvin, Middlebury’s dean of admissions. And like many liberal art schools that admit only a sliver of students, she said Middlebury’s application numbers leaped by 30%.

The institution will spend the three-year pilot gathering data — including first-year retention rates and other student performance indicators — to inform whether test-optional “is a good fit for Middlebury,” Curvin said.

“There’s a tendency to assume if you’re test-optional, students might struggle,” Curvin said. “I have not seen that to be an outcome at other institutions that moved into test-optional policies.”

She ascribes Middlebury’s most diverse class in part to the test-optional policy. Of the institution’s fall 2021 entrants, 37% are students of color, compared to 29% the prior year. She also credited outreach to low-income populations, such as in high schools with large shares of these students.

Broadly, research supports that doing away with entrance exams diversifies student bodies. A recent study of 99 private colleges that went test-optional before the pandemic found the policies yielded mild enrollment gains among Black, Latinx, and Native American students as well as women. A study from 2018 examined nearly 1 million applicants across 28 test-optional institutions and unearthed similar results. The campuses had varying gains in Black, Latino, and Indigenous applicants and admitted.

In Washington, D.C., American University has been test-optional for about a decade, first trying it out with early-decision applicants. In 2009, when the pilot was announced, about 14% of submitters did not identify as White, which rose to 17% the following year, said Andrea Felder, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions.

After the university extended the option to all prospective students, starting with those applying for the 2012-13 academic year, that group’s share jumped to 20%. By 2020 it was more than a quarter, she said.

The share of underrepresented students of color in higher ed applying to America without test scores has ranged from about 33% to nearly 42%. This subset of Americans comprises Indigenous, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino.

Since 2009, Felder said, America has seen a 105% increase in first-year students of color and a 129% increase in underrepresented students of color.

“There’s a belief that you just need a test score to be competitive. But we want to break that thinking,” Felder said. She said the hypercompetitive nature of admissions at a small band of selective schools trickles down to other colleges and could dissuade disadvantaged students from applying.

Throwing the tests out?

Although colleges find success working without the scores, schools use those numbers in other ways that could make their hold on higher ed challenging.

For one, colleges sustain a symbiotic relationship with the testing companies, which collect demographic data students fill out on the exams and sell it to institutions for recruitment.

Research demonstrates that a top slot on the list will attract more applicants. SAT and ACT scores also have long figured into the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which families often parse when nailing down where their students should apply. Thus, despite the index’s documented flaws, presidents and governing boards may not want to do anything to hurt their placement.

It’s also easy for a college to market a collectively high SAT score, said Aaron Ray, a long-serving admissions and opportunity program official. It’s a metric the public understands and latches onto, he said. He has worked at Union and Skidmore colleges.

Conversely, enrollment professionals generally loathe the rankings and think they’re a big reason institutions preserve the entrance exams. A National Association for College Admission Counseling poll in 2011 found that an overwhelming majority of its members believed the rankings either consistently or occasionally “put pressure on institutions to invest in strategies and practices primarily to maintain or strengthen” their position on the list.

Burdick came to Cornell in 2019 from the University of Rochester, where he helped institute a test-optional policy. He said his colleagues at Cornell feared he’d try to do the same there right away. He didn’t, but Burdick said he “used an opportunity” with the pandemic. Cornell flipped test-optional in late April 2020, and the rest of the Ivy League followed that June. “I’m sure some of my peer institutions thought I dragged them into the abyss,” he said.

Dates top U.S. News & World Report-ranked liberal arts schools announced test-optional policies.

InstitutionDate Announced
Davidson CollegeMarch 30, 2020
Pomona CollegeApril 2, 2020
Vassar CollegeApril 2, 2020
Williams CollegeApril 6, 2020
Amherst CollegeApril 6, 2020
Middlebury CollegeApril 8, 2020
Colgate UniversityApril 9, 2020
Swarthmore CollegeApril 13, 2020
University of RichmondApril 21, 2020

Admissions professionals who want to eliminate the tests usually must convince a wide range of institutional leaders that doing so would not threaten their coveted rankings spots. Some college officials also fear admitting students without scores would degrade their campuses’ academic reputation, as NACAC outlined in a report last year. The tests also provide an easy way to vet submissions that some colleges have come to rely on.

“We’re managing interests of boards of trustees, faculty members, coaches, the various bodies of athletics,” said Adrienne Oddi, dean of admissions and financial aid at Trinity College, a selective liberal arts institution in Connecticut that has been test-optional since 2015. “There are externally driven requirements, and admissions and aid officers are at the intersection of that.”

More than 80% of students apply to Trinity with no test scores, and the same share of the student body is admitted without them, Oddi said.

Skepticism abounds

Skeptics of test-optional policies often point to flaws in other admissions metrics to defend the exams. They say high school GPAs have been inflated and that participating in extracurricular activities hinges on a student’s or family’s wealth. A recent Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis working paper suggested that admissions essays align more closely with household income than SAT scores. The research did not examine whether the gaps affect an essay’s quality or whether these differences would weigh admissions officers.

In an interview, Matt Larriva, founder of the tutoring business Powerful Prep, rattled off these criticisms. He said it’s unfair that most critiques focus on the tests. The SAT and ACT don’t create barriers for disadvantaged students but rather expose them, Larriva argued. “Why don’t we take that energy to fight disparity outcomes rather than standardized tests that measure them?”

The College Board, in an emailed statement to Higher Ed Dive, said that “real inequities” exist in American education but contended that the “SAT itself is not a racist instrument.” The organization reviews every SAT question for evidence of bias. IThestatement, discards those that might favor one group, said Priscilla Rodriguez, the company’s vice president of College Readiness Assessments. Rodriguez also maintained that the tests strengthen underrepresented students’ applications by giving them an “accessible and affordable” way to distinguish themselves.

The College Board also supports colleges adding “more flexibility and choice into the admissions process through test-optional policies.”

However, the SAT has documented racist roots, with the psychologist who developed the test in the 1920s, Carl Brigham, a known eugenicist. Studies have since found some exam questions to be racially biased, and score gaps exist between white students and those of color. (A College Board spokesperson said the test has since been updated to address the concerns the research raises about racial bias, which the spokesperson said applied to a limited section of the exam.)

Critics of the tests argue that these inequities contribute to why Black, Latino, and Indigenous students attend college at lower rates than their peers, particularly in highly selective institutions.

Test-optional supporters and detractors alike don’t believe getting rid of the tests is a panacea. Ray and Larriva pointed out that colleges’ test-optional rules can be so convoluted that they don’t help students decide whether the scores are necessary.

“We’re managing interests of boards of trustees, faculty members, coaches, the various bodies of athletics. Some requirements are externally driven, and admissions and aid officers are at that intersection.”

Adrienne Oddi, Dean of Admissions and financial aid, Trinity College

The University of Washington, which went test-optional during the pandemic and had since formally adopted the policy, says its application reviewers won’t see the scores. However, the webpage explaining the procedure also notes that officials may consider them for “a handful” of applicants who score better than the middle 50% of students but otherwise might not be admitted.

Some skeptics don’t buy into research that the policies change the makeup of applicant pools. Kenton Pauls, national director of higher education at ACT, said “it’s unknown” whether the soaring application numbers at some schools this year can be attributed to test-optional admissions but that the organization will study the phenomenon. Some selective institutions, including California and the Ivy League, have seen more diverse applicant pools.

Demand for student testing “remains strong,” Pauls said. An ACT spokesperson said in an email that nearly 1.7 million students who graduated from high school in 2020 took the test. More than 1.8 million graduates from the class of 2019 sat for the exam.

The sudden shift to test-optional admissions across higher ed revealed unanticipated consequences, Pauls said. ACT’s market research shows that for lack of alternatives, institutions may be having an easier time disentangling the tests from admissions decisions than from other aspects of their operations, such as recruitment or scholarships.

The ACT’s research showed schools that went test-optional during the pandemic likely won’t backtrack to their former policies, but they also probably won’t forgo the tests entirely.

Jessie, the testing tutor who has publicly advocated for test-optional admissions, said her students were dubious when they had no choice but to apply without test scores during the pandemic.

But when they were admitted to a school, they believed was out of reach; they became advocates for others to apply test-optional by talking about how they were accepted through the process, she said.

Jessie said those testimonials could bring a human element to test-optional policies and help institutions promote them. She encourages colleges to include them on their websites.

“Students make students feel safe,” she said. Clarification: This story was updated to explain better criticism of racial bias in the SAT and additional comments from the College Board.

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