Tennessee backtracks on its test-optional policy. Where do other state systems stand?

The university will again require students to submit SAT and ACT scores in 2023, ending its waiver process two years early.
By: | May 10, 2022
The SAT and ACT face an uncertain future as colleges admissions tests in California. (Ben Mullins/Unsplash)Ben Mullins/Unsplash

Despite announcing last May that it would extend its test-optional admissions policy for prospective students until 2025, University of Tennessee leaders now say that experiment will only last through the 2022-23 academic year.

Starting in the fall of 2023, Tennessee will require that students applying to all of its campuses submit ACT and SAT scores, bucking national trends that see more than 1,600 four-year institutions continuing their test-optional policies in an effort to sustain a more holistic approach to admissions.

Tennessee President Randy Boyd did not offer much detail on the reason for the switch, only stating at a recent board meeting that “our admissions policies do not allow test-optional” and that it was only allowed under the waiver process during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There was really no action necessary by the board. So this is consistent with outstanding pre-COVID admissions policies,” he said.

But last year the university released a statement announcing a long extension of the policy with this quote from Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Fabrizio D’Aloisio: “Though we believe admissions tests do provide additional validity to our decisions, we also understand the tests are just one part of a student’s story. This five-year test-optional policy will allow us to collect data and assess how effective admissions tests are for our population of students.”

A spokesperson at Tennessee on Tuesday reiterated part of that message and how they came to the decision:

“Standardized test scores, while important, only represents one component of the holistic admissions processes. Since June 2021, we have engaged in a very public and open dialogue with the UT Board of Trustees regarding the use of standardized test scores in admission decisions. Our commitment to the board since that time was to continue to evaluate standardized testing in admissions, adjusting and/or refining as needed. We will continue to evaluate, as well as continue our transparency in publicly discussing with the board.”

Tennessee is planning to continue “general” admissions discussions during its next meeting in early June, though it seemed clear from Boyd’s final statement in the meeting—that all campuses were in agreement not to bring any revisions forward—that it would be a long shot to bring back test-optional. Current students who already have applied for entry in fall 2022 and those who do in the spring of 2023 will still be exempted. The average SAT score at Tennessee in 2019-20 was 1240 with some flexibility, according to several national student prep agencies. A report from the Knoxville News Sentinel showed that around 9,000 students in 2020 applied without entering their test score.


More from UB: Two-year study from universities will examine fairness of test-optional policies


How others are approaching test-optional

Tennessee is among only a few public state systems that have opted to reverse course on test-optional or not allow it at all. Those policies have been crucial before and especially during the pandemic in getting a broader range of students interested in postsecondary education. During the past year, students have applied to more than five institutions apiece, with application numbers rising 14% alone on the Common App. Tennessee did not provide details on

There is concern among some higher education leaders that removing them will lead to fewer applications from students from underrepresented groups. At least one highly selective private institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has chosen to bring them back so it can gauge “the academic preparedness” of its candidates. Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), fears systems like Tennessee are being driven by other factors.

“Just as in Florida and Georgia, political appointees who control the Tennessee state university system overrode the judgment of admissions and enrollment management professionals,” he said. “When higher education entrance exam requirements are set by ideologues, it is not surprising that data about the tests’ accuracy and fairness are ignored. Though FairTest would not be surprised if public systems in a few other states controlled by ultra-conservatives were to restore testing requirements, most will remain ACT/SAT-optional.”

Other public state university systems, meanwhile, have stood by them, at least for now, including several in the South—Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Idaho, Utah and Wyoming are among those that haven’t made decisions on 2022 yet. The other UT, the University of Texas at Austin, decided last week to extend test-optional for another year through 2023. The reason? Without going into very much detail, Texas said, “This change was initially made in fall 2021 in order to allow the university to better serve potential students by ensuring that testing limitations related to COVID-19 do not affect a student’s ability to apply.”

The pandemic still being a factor in terms of financial burdens on families and whether students should pursue college at all, is driving some institutions to press on. Texas cited the very reason Tennessee did initially for maintaining the status quo on test-optional—its “holistic approach to admissions.” Texas still accepts test scores as part of the process, as many do. Schaeffer noted that 84 schools are test-blind through 2022 and some beyond, including Caltech, Catholic University, the Cal State University and University of California systems, Cornell University, Pitzer College and Washington State University. And some have made test-optional permanent.

Boyd said the university and its campus leaders spent six months reviewing the test-optional policies, but the process appears to be over. He thanked those for implementing them the past two years “to accommodate our students during the COVID pandemic, which made testing less available.”