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

by Jeremy

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

As she calls them, her kids 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 acted scores pre-pandemic.

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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 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 don’t eliminate the tests. Still, admissions experts believe these policies open doors for students whom higher education has historically boxed out.

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