How the national test-optional experiment played out at US colleges

by Jeremy

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Practically none of the high school students who testing tutor Jennifer Jessie worked with knew about test-optional admissions before the pandemic. 

Her kids, as she calls them, weren’t even aware that some of the well-known public colleges near where she’s based in northern Virginia — like George Mason and James Madison universities — didn’t require SAT and ACT scores pre-pandemic. 

That changed as the coronavirus crisis overturned conventions of college admissions and brought broad recognition to test-optional policies. As the pandemic closed testing sites, most four-year colleges that required entrance exams temporarily abandoned them.

Test scores are entwined in campus operations. Supporters of entrance exams claim they offer a standard way for measuring applicants’ academic prowess. And at many institutions, they inform course placement, scholarship awards and enrollment projections. 

Their many functions dissuade college officials from extracting the exams from admissions processes. But this is the aim of the tests’ critics, who argue that doing so would encourage campus diversity. Research indicates that the SAT and ACT favor White and wealthy students over poor, Black and Hispanic ones. 

Jessie, who works with many Black and low-income students, said some already mistrusted colleges and felt they were being overlooked. And so they thought officials would shun their applications if they submitted them without scores. One saw the policy as a pity move, Jessie said, only put in place because students couldn’t sit for the tests in the coronavirus era. “No one wants to go in being pitied,” she said. 

Their skepticism may be warranted. Colleges delivered inconsistent and ambiguous messaging on their test-optional rules, with some sending signals that even though they would let students apply without the scores, officials still valued them. Many institutions went test-optional for the first time during the last year, creating an entirely new, but uncertain, landscape for admissions that doesn’t completely eliminate the tests. Still, admissions experts believe these policies open doors for students whom higher education has historically boxed out.

“This is a first step in the right direction,” Jessie said. 

A movement put into overdrive

The pandemic hastened the burgeoning test-optional movement more than two-thirds of all four-year universities in the U.S. didn’t demand test scores from at least some applicants for fall 2021, according to a database kept by FairTest, a group advocating for narrow uses of standardized assessments. This dataset includes schools that were test-optional before the health crisis, though fewer than 50 schools adopted policies between September 2018 and September 2019 by FairTest’s count.

Decision-making in higher ed is often a case of follow-the-leader. Shifting to test-flexible admissions during the pandemic was no exception. Almost all of the universities in the Ivy League announced they wouldn’t require test scores within about two weeks of each other in June 2020. The same pattern occurred in April of that year with many of the liberal arts schools ranked highest by U.S. News & World Report. Other schools made the same move between the spring and late summer of 2020. 

Dates the Ivy League announced test-optional policies
InstitutionDate announced
Cornell UniversityApril 22, 2020
Columbia University  June 2, 2020
Dartmouth CollegeJune 3, 2020
University of PennsylvaniaJune 4, 2020
Brown UniversityJune 12, 2020
Yale UniversityJune 12, 2020
Harvard UniversityJune 15, 2020
Princeton UniversityJune 18, 2020

“Colleges watch one another,” FairTest’s executive director, Bob Schaeffer, said.

There was one prominent holdout: Florida’s public colleges, whose governing body resisted calls to go test-optional during the pandemic with little explanation. Recently, too, the University System of Georgia said it would once again mandate scores beginning with students applying to start in the spring. 

Some southern states have zealously embraced test-based education, Schaeffer noted. Two mammoth state scholarship programs in Georgia, as well as ones in Florida and Louisiana, stipulate standardized test scores.

Yet schools are sticking with test-optional in significant numbers. At least 1,400 institutions will have the policies in fall 2022, according to FairTest. (This encompasses schools that were test-optional prior to the health crisis and those that use tests in a limited manner.)

“We are ecstatic,” Schaeffer said. “Test-optional is becoming the new norm.”

Many schools are reaping benefits, too, with selective institutions particularly enjoying record application numbers. The Common Application, the online system enabling students to reach 900 or so member colleges, reported about 6.2 million applications as of May 31, compared to about 5.6 million last year. (Though some schools outside the top-ranked ones didn’t experience an application surge.)

A new kind of review

With test scores off the table, colleges sought different ways to review applications.

Those to Cornell, which in April 2020 became the first Ivy League school to shift test-optional, rose about 30% to around 67,000 total, said Jon Burdick, its vice provost for enrollment. 

The university’s application readers are “pretty seasoned,” Burdick said, but officials wanted a way to train them to review applications without test scores. During a virtual session last summer, admissions officials showed readers a series of year-old transcripts from one high school where students frequently put in a bid to Cornell. Based on the information on the application, the readers needed to rate it on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the strongest, using a polling feature on Zoom. 

Readers mostly landed within one point of each other, building their confidence in working without the scores, Burdick said. Transcripts are one of several factors the school uses to evaluate applications. The readers were mostly concerned about the workload associated with tackling the increased application numbers, he said, as the university didn’t add more readers. 

Dates flagship schools announced test-optional policies
InstitutionDate announced
University of Montana  April 17, 2020
University of California, Berkeley  May 21, 2020
University of VirginiaJune 4, 2020
University of DelawareJune 9, 2020
Ohio State UniversityJune 22, 2020
University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignJune 23, 2020
University of UtahJune 26, 2020
University of VermontJuly 13, 2020
University of North Carolina at Chapel HillJuly 23, 2020
University of Wisconsin-MadisonJuly 29, 2020
University of MissouriAugust 5, 2020
University of KentuckyAugust 13, 2020
University of IowaAugust 14, 2020
University of Nebraska-LincolnAugust 17, 2020
University of GeorgiaAugust 26, 2020

At Michigan State University, applications swelled about 11%, to 51,000 or so, following its move to test-optional for fall 2021, said John Ambrose, director of undergraduate admissions. As admissions officials delved into reading applications without scores, they used GPAs to create a benchmark. 

For applicants from a subset of high schools where students often apply to MSU, officials looked at how prior students from those high schools fared during their first term to calculate an expected GPA. 

To gauge expected performance of fall 2021 applicants from high schools other than one of the regulars, the university created a ratio comparing fall 2019 entrants’ high school and first-time Michigan State GPAs. Officials used that figure to project fall 2021 entrants’ first-time Michigan State GPAs based on their high school averages. 

Research has shown that high school GPA can be a stronger indicator of college success than standardized exams. The potential GPA was just one of several admissions criteria officials considered when reviewing applications, Ambrose said.

Because admissions officials were traveling less during the pandemic, they had more time to review applications, Ambrose said. And they will get a lot of practice assessing them without test scores for a few years. The university entered a five-year test-optional pilot, which Ambrose said will give officials enough time to gather data on cohorts that had high shares of admits with no scores, before deciding whether to make the policy permanent.

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