No phrase better captures the trend in college admissions over the last decade than test-optional. “We will use SAT or ACT scores to evaluate your application,” test-optional schools say, “but we will evaluate your application–without bias–without those scores if you choose not to send them.”
The college admissions process boils down to a Herculean effort to sift through thousands of applications to find the 5-25% that project to align best with a school’s academic environment and culture. Admissions carries high-stakes for both sides. Why then, would an admissions team choose to tackle this task without the one data point explicitly designed for college admissions?
The primary defense for test-optional admissions–apart from the fact that some people just don’t like standardized tests–is to promote diversity. Socioeconomic groups that lack access to the public education or private test preparation resources that lead to higher test scores find themselves at an apparent disadvantage when admissions policies require standardized tests. The remedy for at least one small aspect of overall socioeconomic inequity may be to allow students who feel their SAT or ACT scores don’t represent them fairly to submit applications without those scores. Ostensibly, a school that can find ways to accurately assess these applicants without test scores will be rewarded with a more diverse incoming class.
And according to one study, this theory holds true. The DEFINING ACCESS: How Test-Optional Works study published in April 2018 found that “the adoption of a well-executed test-optional admission policy can lead to an increase in overall applications as well as an increase in the representation of URM students (students from racial and ethnic groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in college populations) in the applicant pool and the freshman class.” Analysis of this comprehensive report reveals many interesting findings:
- The years following adoption of a test-optional policy saw increases in the total number of applications — by an average of 29 percent at private institutions and 11 percent at public institutions.
- While the degrees varied, institutions that went test optional saw gains in the numbers of black and Latino students applying and being admitted to their institutions.
- About one-fourth of all applicants to the test-optional colleges opted not to submit scores.
- Underrepresented minority students were more likely than others to decide not to submit.
While this study seems to present definitive proof that test-optional policies improve the diversity of incoming students, the research only focused on 28 schools. A more comprehensive study released October 2018 compared the data from the 127 colleges with a test-optional policy from 2009-2014 to the 1,649 schools without. The findings from SAT optional policies: Do they influence graduate quality, selectivity or diversity? differed dramatically from the DEFINING ACCESS study:
- SAT optional policies have no effect on racial and socioeconomic diversity.
- SAT optional policies do not influence the gender ratio of institutions.
- SAT optional policies have no effect on the quality of the student population.
- SAT optional policies briefly increase applications, but the effect is not sustained over time.
Apparently, test-optional policies don’t magically solve unequal access to the halls of higher education, at least not on their own. Research into the impact of these policies will undoubtedly continue long-term, but the bigger issues involved deserve action now. If schools really want to promote campus diversity, rather than just game their national college rankings, then test-optional policies need to be part of a more comprehensive strategy that takes into account the requirements of these underrepresented groups. For example, one study found that high-need students choose not to submit their SAT and ACT scores at higher rates than other populations. Thus, test-optional schools will have to account for the greater ongoing financial support required by many of these applicants.
There’s no denying that some colleges adopt test-optional policies for cynical reasons related to marketing or ranking. The more sincere schools that embrace these policies as a means to fulfill college dreams among traditionally underrepresented groups must accept the challenges along with the benefits and commit not just to offering students a way in but also making sure they get out with their degrees and equal access to a bright future.