Of all the many disruptions to higher education wrought by the pandemic, one of the most important has been the rapid change in how American colleges and universities use standardized tests like the SAT and ACT in making their admission decisions.
Test-optional policies have become the new norm in college admissions.
The pandemic kicked the so-called test-optional movement, which has a decades-long history, into high gear. According to an updated list of ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind schools maintained by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), more than 1,700 colleges and universities will not require admissions exam scores from applicants seeking to enroll in college in fall 2022. That’s more than 73% of all U.S. bachelor-degree granting institutions.
» Review: The country’s top test-optional colleges
Test-optional policies have become the new norm in college admissions, and even grad schools are starting to go test optional. Here are some basic questions and answers about this movement and what they mean for students thinking about their own college application strategies.
What’s the difference between test-optional and test-blind colleges?
Test-optional colleges allow applicants to choose whether they will submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. Even though they do not require standardized test scores, these schools typically still use test scores to make decisions about both admissions and financial aid. When evaluating 2 similar applicants — an applicant with excellent test scores and another without any scores — test optional colleges often opt for the student with strong test scores over the student without them.
Test-blind schools, on the other hand, do not consider students’ standardized test scores at all in their admission decisions. Test-optional colleges far outnumber test-blind ones, which total fewer than 100.
Many schools are what could be called “test-mixed.” They may not demand admissions tests from in-state students but require them from out-of-state candidates. They may waive the requirement of an admissions test, but only for students with high school GPAs above a certain cutoff. They may use the test scores to determine placement in developmental math and English courses or to decide whether a student will be accepted into high-demand academic programs like nursing or engineering.
When did test-optional admissions begin?
Bowdoin College is generally credited as the first college to introduce test-optional admissions, more than 50 years ago. Other institutions steadily followed suit, but in recent years, the pace of the shift has accelerated, led by such brand name schools as the University of Chicago and the University of California dropping their testing requirements.
Momentum has been fueled by several factors in the past few years. First, are the well-researched concerns that students of color, those from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to attend college do not on average score as well on standardized tests as those coming from more privileged backgrounds. This caused many colleges to rethink their policies, particularly as they seek to diversify their enrollments.
Another factor is that many critics contend that standardized tests are not very good predictors of academic performance in college. The evidence concerning the incremental validity of tests like the ACT or SAT is mixed, but there are substantial data indicating that high school GPA is probably a better predictor of college success than standardized tests.
Now, many are considering dropping the tests as an admission requirement permanently.
A third factor relates to the abuses uncovered in the Varsity Blues college admission scandal which dealt a major blow to the testing industry, as evidence was uncovered about the extent to which fraudulent test scores could be bought by families willing to cheat in order to gain admission for their children to elite colleges.
Finally, the host of practical test-administration problems encountered during the pandemic forced many institutions into suspending the use of the tests, at least temporarily. Now, many are considering dropping the tests as an admission requirement permanently.
What impact do test-optional policies have on admissions?
While the evidence about the impacts of test-optional practice is mixed, the consensus suggests that it’s an approach that encourages a greater number of applicants, a larger yield of enrollees and no decline in graduation rates.
A large-scale study published in 2018 examined results for almost one million applicants to 28 institutions of varying sizes, all of which had adopted test-optional admissions. Among the key findings:
- About a quarter of applicants chose not to submit test scores. Minority students, Pell recipients and first-generation-to-college students were more likely to be non-submitters.
- All but one of the 28 test-optional colleges saw increases in minority, low-income and first-generation-to-college applications after introducing the policy.
- Non-test-submitting students were admitted at lower rates than submitters, but they ultimately enrolled at substantially higher rates.
- The high school and first-year college GPAs of non-submitters were lower than students who submitted test scores, but when it came to graduation rates – the ultimate proof of the pudding – non-submitters graduated at equal or slightly higher rates than the submitters. These findings replicate the results of an earlier study of 123,000 students at 33 colleges.
Skeptics of test-optional admissions can point to evidence supporting their position. A 2015 study by University of Georgia researchers found no statistical difference in enrollment of underrepresented students at test-optional versus test-requiring liberal arts colleges.
The College Board, which publishes the SAT, has also challenged claims by test-optional advocates in a 2018 book that maintains that standardized test scores are valid predictors of college performance, especially given the growing problem of grade inflation. Other evidence suggests that the introduction of standardized tests may have helped democratize college enrollment across the last century.
But recent studies suggest that test-optional admissions are associated, as predicted, with at least modest increases in the enrollment of Pell Grant recipients, first-time students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, and first-time enrollment of women.
What effect did the pandemic have on students’ test taking?
According to a report by the Common App, 77% of applicants submitted test scores in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. In the 2020-2021 cycle, when the effects of the pandemic were at their peak, only 43% of applicants submitted scores, a dramatic one-year plunge.
Students have become increasingly strategic in their test taking:
- The share of applicants who did not report test scores to any of the schools to which they applied was 57%, more than double the rate of the prior year (23%).
- While only 4% of applicants chose to report their scores in some, but not all, of their applications in 2019-2020, almost a quarter (24%) did so in 2020-2021, a single-year increase of over 200,000 applicants who employed differential test score reporting across their different applications.
- Finally, only 19% of applicants reported test scores in all their applications this year, compared to 73% the year before.
Reporting of test scores also differed by student groups. First-generation-to-college students reported test scores at a much lower rate than their non-first-generation peers (30% vs 48%). Traditionally underrepresented minority students were much less likely to report scores (31%) than were non-minority students (47%).
Do test-optional admissions benefit colleges?
Apart from any positive effects on enrollment and student diversity, a test-optional policy can serve ulterior motives for institutions. Because high-scoring students are more likely than low-scorers to submit test results, the average academic profile of an entering class will probably be elevated.
Therefore, an institution’s selectivity, which is often seen as a proxy for academic excellence, will likely increase as a side effect of going test-optional.
Additionally, because more students are likely to apply, the percentage of accepted applicants will decrease. Therefore, an institution’s selectivity, which is often seen as a proxy for academic excellence, will likely increase as a side effect of going test-optional.
On the other hand, test-optional and test-blind policies increase the burden on admissions staff, who are forced to find and evaluate other indicators in a candidate’s records that distinguish them from the thousands of other applicants under consideration. One of the advantages of standardized testing is that it provides an easy and ostensibly objective method for making more efficient admissions decisions.
What should students do?
Armed with this basic information, here are 6 key steps students should consider as they plan their testing strategy:
- Find out the specific, up-to-date testing policy for all the colleges to which you intend to apply. Even though 2 colleges may both state that they are test-optional, their actual procedures may differ substantially.
- Prepare to sit for either the SAT or ACT. There is very little to lose in taking one of these tests. If you score well, submit the results. If not, hold them.
- Learn the average scores for recently admitted students, a statistic that schools will post on their websites. If you take the SAT or ACT and score below the 25th percentile for a given school, you should consider applying test-optional. If, on the other hand, your score places you above the average of previously accepted students, you should probably include your scores with your application. Obviously, the higher the percentile ranking of your score, the more helpful including the results will be to your chances.
- When you take the test, give your best effort but don’t become too anxious about the results. In this new test-optional world, you retain a lot of control over whether and where your test scores will be used.
- Identify those schools where submitting your scores might be helpful to your chances and those where withholding the scores might improve your admissions odds. Remember – this decision depends a great deal on what you learned in step #2. As a rule of thumb, applications to more selective institutions are more likely to include test scores compared to less selective institutions.
- Recognize that if you don’t submit scores, the rest of your record will be scrutinized much more closely. High school coursework and grades, your application essay, volunteer work, extracurricular activities, and other personal achievements will carry more weight as a result of not including a test score in your application. You’ll want to bolster those areas as much as possible to make your case for acceptance.