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Will ‘test-optional’ policies help or hurt college applicants? LeoPatrizi/ E+ via Getty Images

Many colleges have gone test-optional – here’s how that could change the way students are admitted

Editor’s note: More than two-thirds of U.S. four-year colleges and universities have decided to make the SAT or ACT optional for admission in the fall of 2021, some on a temporary basis, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, two scholars – Angela Farmer, assistant clinical professor of honors education at Mississippi State University, and Jonathan Wai, assistant professor of education policy and psychology at the University of Arkansas – shine some light what this means for students’ chances of getting into the college of their choice.

How have required college entrance exams helped or hurt in the past?

Angela Farmer. www.honors.msstate.edu

Angela Farmer: When I served as a high school administrator in a small, rural community in southern Illinois, I saw many talented students get rejected by selective universities. The reason was that their high schools didn’t have the resources or sophistication needed to present a more comprehensive picture of their students.

For example, one student had a perfect GPA and an ACT score in the high 30s (a 36 is considered perfect). Yet, she was not accepted to a certain Ivy League school due largely to the fact that her school did not have a competitive rigor index. The index is a calculated prediction of a student’s “first-year college GPA based on high school courses taken, grades and indicators of advanced coursework.” Unfortunately, her rural high school’s absence of Advanced Placement courses or supplemental, high-level STEM classes, veiled any clear evidence of her ability to perform in those disciplines.

For these situations, test-optional colleges – and especially schools that are test-blind, meaning they won’t look at SAT or ACT scores at all – may find themselves considering a wider variety of students than when they relied more on standardized test scores.

Jonathan Wai. www.edre.uark.edu

Jonathan Wai: Contrary to what some news articles state, there is evidence that test scores, including the SAT and ACT, despite their imperfections, are often good predictors of how well students will perform in college and beyond. This is true even after considering socioeconomic status.

Thus, SAT and ACT scores can do a good job of letting colleges know if a particular student will do well there or not.

As a case in point, consider Bowdoin College, which has been test-optional since 1969. Howard Wainer, an educational researcher, studied Bowdoin’s class of 1999. He found that those who didn’t submit their SAT scores did worse during their first year of college than those who submitted their scores.

What this shows is that the SAT score was generally a good indicator of how well students would perform. Therefore, the SAT scores would have been useful for admission officers. However, showing the scores may have been disadvantageous for students with lower scores.

How will going test-optional change admissions?

Farmer: Students now have more opportunities. This shift comes at a time when there is a growing recognition that standardized tests favor students from wealthier backgrounds. The reason is that more affluent families can afford to purchase pricey prep materials and hire coaches. Meanwhile, minority students more often attend schools in high-poverty areas and are more than two times as likely to have lower standardized scores.

When schools go test-optional, it offers a chance for students to provide a more complete picture of themselves and their talents than what a test score can capture. I believe this is heartening, especially as an academic whose own children are about to apply for college.

My hope is that the more selective colleges and universities can use this opportunity to get to know students more for the diverse skills, talents and perspectives they possess.

Wai: Making tests optional shifts weight to other criteria, which have their own limitations. Grades are susceptible to inflation, which is when teachers give students higher grades than what they should have earned.

What about letters of recommendation? Research has found that letters of recommendation are only weakly associated with how well a student will do in college.

Other research shows test-optional policies can - at least temporarily - increase the numbers of freshman applications. However, it does not increase diversity among enrolled students.

A young woman uses a laptop while holding a book in her hand.
Test-optional policies do not seem to change the academic caliber of students that universities admit.

The research is mixed on whether there’s a long-term payoff associated with going to a more selective school.

For instance, research has shown that going to a highly selective college does not appear to matter for how much money you’ll make later, but that SAT scores do.

On the other hand, a different study found that for students from poor or middle class families, going to an elite school – such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale – gives them a better chance of joining the top 20% of America’s income earners than those who go to a top public university.

Yet another study found that – for students seeking admission to more selective colleges than their test scores and grades would typically qualify them for – it is unclear whether attending a slightly more selective school would meaningfully change their trajectories, at least when it comes to income earnings in the long run. Research suggests test-optional policies may mean colleges find students who end up enrolling who may not have applied otherwise.

Additionally, test-optional policies do not seem to change the academic caliber of the students. Perhaps this is in part because students tend to enroll in schools that they are academically prepared for no matter the admissions process.

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One thing this finding suggests is that being admitted to a more selective college would mean competing for class rank, scholarships or other awards with higher-scoring students.

As more schools make college entrance exams optional – or completely remove them – I believe it will be important to figure out what type of effect going test-optional is having on colleges as well as students. This will be beneficial not only for college gatekeepers but for parents and students as students make choices about which college they should try to get in.

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