Test-optional policies gain momentum

Navigating the holistic admissions process, with or without standardized tests

To submit SAT or ACT scores or not to submit SAT or ACT scores? That is the question a growing number of college and universities ask applicants to answer during the admissions process.

According to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities have test-optional policies that admit substantial numbers of applicants by eschewing the influence of standardized tests in favor of a more complete admissions portfolio. Exactly how test-optional policies impact admissions decision-making depends on the institution, but they do create resource challenges.

Digging deeper

Admissions staff at test-optional schools have to work harder to evaluate applicants because they have to “dig much deeper” during the process, says Angel Perez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College, a selective liberal arts school in Hartford, Connecticut, that went test-optional in 2015. Plenty of research shows that the SAT and ACT are “good predictors of first-year GPA, but they do not predict whether a student is going to persist and graduate,” he adds. The number of advanced-level courses a student takes, curriculum rigor and recommendation letters are part of a more holistic admissions process.

“All of those things, to me, are better predictors of whether students survive in a college classroom than how well they performed on an exam on one particular day,” he says.

Institutional inertia is a factor in more schools not adopting test-optional policies because faculty members believe the academic quality of an institution will degrade if SAT and ACT scores are not required for admission, adds Perez. The University of Chicago, one of the most selective schools in the country, recently decided to become test-optional, which Perez hopes is a continuing trend. Perez says the first question posed to him was essentially how to evaluate the applicant pool without test scores as a dominant part of the admissions puzzle. Perez’s answer was to shift the paradigm.

“We realized there is no difference between the first-year students who submit and those who don’t submit,” Perez says. “The biggest misconception about highly selective college admissions is that you’re sitting around a table, and you only have two students to choose from. We’re talking about thousands of people at a time. We’re cultivating a class and choosing (from) massive cohorts of people.”

In Trinity’s latest admitted class, Perez says 49 percent of the students chose not to submit test scores. For the majority of students who did submit, they did not gain any strategic advantage in the admissions process, according to Perez. Even if they are outstanding scores, applicants are simply providing additional information to admissions officers. He adds that a top-notch high school transcript carries the same, if not more, weight in the ultimate admissions decision.

“The higher your grades and more competitive your program, the higher chances you have of being admitted,” Perez says.

Holistic admissions considerations

Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says though standardized tests have traditionally had an “outsize influence on admissions decisions,” he hopes that leaders of colleges deciding to adopt test-optional admissions think through their goals and processes.

“To be truly holistic, you want every piece of evidence that you can get, and the tests can add to that,” Reilly says.

From his view, Reilly adds, test-optional schools improve the depth and diversity of their applicant pools, but he does worry “a little bit” about some schools using these policies to bump their mean SAT or ACT scores; some evidence indicates that students who choose not to submit them tend to have lower scores. He says this potentially drives up selectivity by those schools getting more applicants.

“My hope,” Reilly says, “is that it does provide access for students for whom that test is not a true measure of their ability to succeed.”

Robert Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, says becoming a test-optional school is not a magic bullet. Increasing recruitment of underrepresented populations and meeting the financial needs of students are still necessary.

“Oftentimes, the kids who don’t submit test scores are lower income and may not have had the opportunity for test prep and the other kinds of things that give upper-middle class kids a boost on test-score competition,” Schaeffer says.

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