Why test-optional admissions policies should extend beyond 1 to 2 years

FairTest Director says 77% of colleges don't require test scores and the majority will not even as the pandemic subsides.

The overwhelming majority of colleges and universities—roughly 77%—embraced holistic measures in admissions processes over standardized testing for fall 2022. Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to support prospective students, many extended test-optional policies beyond the next academic cycle. Some, like the University of Oklahoma, expanded it to five years or went test-blind.

Bob Schaeffer, Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), says admissions offices that have embraced the new wave of assessments have been rewarded for making the transition, including increased applications and more inclusive pools of students. “They have more applicants and better-qualified applicants than they’ve had in the past, and more diversity,” Schaeffer says. “They’ve also found that once they made the adjustment, it wasn’t all that hard to do admissions without testing.”

Not all of them are guaranteed to keep policies in place beyond 2022. They could revert to old standards, as Georgetown University during this past cycle. Much depends on direction of leadership in those offices and what institutions are seeking from new cohorts of students. Highly selective institutions might be more inclined to lean toward bringing them back given their large application pools, but Schaeffer says it was stunning to see the swiftness that Ivy League schools moved to embrace test-optional and how quickly they extended it another year. Others such as the University of Chicago, Brandeis University and Wake Forest University all have stuck by test-optional, too.

Either way, he says the majority of bachelor’s degree-granting institutions post-pandemic will have test-optional in place. “We know that pre-pandemic, about 1,075, or more than 40%, were test-optional,” he says, noting that currently 1,786 of the 2,300 institutions are not mandating standardized tests. “Among those that have made an announcement, more than 300 we know are going to be test-optional in 2023 and beyond. That includes the University of California system (test-blind) and the California State University. They could easily be into the 1,400s.”

Talk of students submitting test scores, regardless of whether they were required, subsided when Common App released data that showed those entries dropped a staggering 34% and are now below the 45% threshold. There was also a 20% drop in ACT test-taking and a 14% decline in SAT tests year over year.

“Change doesn’t usually happen that fast,” Schaeffer says. “It is a much more gradual process. Yes, some students, particularly those applying to super-selective institutions, take the test in order to have a belt and suspenders. If they happen to get a good score, they will add them to their applications. But we were beyond surprised that, the first year of test-optional for most, the response was so positive. Typically, when a school goes test-optional in the first year, 25-33% don’t submit.”

University Business sat down with Schaeffer to get his take on test-optional’s future and why institutions might consider extending those policies long-term:

Why should institutions embrace test-optional or consider expanding their policies?

Test-optional is a win-win for an institution and for high school students. It’s a win in terms of enhancements to your application pool. It’s a win because you’ve proven that you can do it and have a process in place. It’s a win because it doesn’t put you at a competitive disadvantage with schools that are test-optional that are recruiting the same kids. They have a selling point that you don’t.

What measures does a holistic approach give that standardized tests don’t?

From many research studies, the strongest predictor of undergraduate performance is how well a student did in high school, including grades and course rigor. A high school track record includes lots of tests, portfolios, science projects, book reports. Grades include measurements of non-cognitive skills—self-discipline, the ability to work with others, follow directions, get things done on time—that test scores don’t include. There is more than enough information in a student’s application file, which includes extracurricular activities, leadership, community service, obstacles overcome, essays written and letters of recommendation, to get a rich picture of an applicant without needing to know how well they do on bubble tests.

Also, students have been through the wringer, not just from the pandemic but they have been the most-tested generation in the history of America. The average student has taken 112 standardized tests by the time they graduate from high school. Kids love the opportunity to be judged on more than a score, to be able to show credentials that highlight their knowledge, skills and experience.

Would colleges that are test-optional be better off by simply eliminating them altogether?

It would matter. If you eliminated tests, you wouldn’t have the what-ifs and the gamesmanship that some kids and counselors, and especially test prep companies, wallow in right now. Some kids are genuinely troubled … will that 1300 SAT help me or hurt me at hypercompetitive schools? You don’t have that at test-blind institutions like the University of California or Caltech. The test prep industry responded to the explosive growth of test-optional by ratcheting up the rhetoric: ‘They’re not telling you the truth. Optional doesn’t mean optimal. We’ll help you get a better test score and still beat the system.’ They can’t do that when everybody is test-blind.

There is a group of 500 or so institutions that are not test-optional. Do we know who they are?

By a process of elimination, we know that the University of Florida system, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic and Florida International never dropped their test-score requirements because of Bright Futures Scholarship awards. The University of Georgia suspended its test scores for one year, and then re-imposed them over the public objections of admissions directors. Other places that restored the test were the U.S. Military Academies. The remainder are mostly small religious schools, and many of them were in the process of implementing an alternative [Classic Learning Test] pre-pandemic.

What guidance can you give to colleges that have implemented test-optional temporarily?

Institutions should extend it long enough to get meaningful data. One or two years’ worth of data on the test-optional policy will let you know what kind of students you attracted. The results have been positive in terms of total numbers, academic quality and diversity. But we don’t know about outcomes that matter, like graduation rates and grad school-going rates. And that’s going to take several more years. We applaud those that have a multi-year test suspension.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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