The History of Test-Optional Admissions
At the beginning of the 20th century, many colleges administered their own tests for admissions. The College Board was formed to decrease college admissions chaos and create a national process. Out of this came the SAT in 1926, and then in 1959, the alternate ACT was introduced. Throughout their histories, these entrance exams have changed to reflect changes in society, the needs of colleges, scholarship about education, and to attempt more fairness to a broader range of students.
A 1984 report out of Bates College in Maine, which did not require test scores for admissions, but required all students to submit scores before school began, changed the climate on tests. It found that there was hardly any difference in college grades between students who had submitted scores for admission and those who had not, even though the non-submitters had significantly lower scores on the tests. Also, the non-submitters had slightly higher graduation rates. The Bates study, plus other scholarship about high school grades being more predictive of overall college success, spurred the movement towards test-optional admission across the country. By 2015, approximately 850 U.S. institutions that granted bachelor’s degrees were test-optional.
Since then, there has been continued controversy over whether the tests were biased against minorities, females, or those from low-income families. Research has consistently shown that higher SAT and ACT scores were more correlated with higher family income than with a student’s ability to succeed in college. Yet, some studies have found that standardized tests are a better predictor of success than high school grades and that they give some minority students a chance if their grades are bad. In other words, there is scholarship on both sides of the issue of whether or not the tests predict academic success or promote bias in admissions.
Standardized Tests Cancelled by Covid-19
The pandemic lock-downs canceled many sittings for the SAT and ACT tests in 2020, making it harder for college applicants to get scores. In response, two-thirds of higher education institutions went test-optional for the 2020-21 academic year, and many have continued this into the next couple of admissions cycles. Universities and colleges needed to get as many students enrolled as possible, as the pandemic was also causing lower enrollment and massive uncertainty for higher education funding. Advocates for boosting diversity in higher ed are hoping this will result in permanent test-optional admissions or even the end of the tests. But it is not clear that this would help diversity enough, nor would a major change in admissions practices have predictable consequences for students or schools.
In the earlier movement, test-optional schools experienced higher numbers of applicants than before they dropped the tests. The policy benefitted schools because it made their acceptance rates lower, making them “more selective,” thus moving up on some of the school ranking sites. In addition, students who submitted their test scores anyway were likely to be students who had achieved higher scores, so a school could then say its average test scores for admitted students were higher. However, this did not account for students who did not submit scores. In other words, going test-optional could be a boon to a school’s reputation as measured by the rankings. Thought-provoking.
Initial results seem to show that prestigious schools did see more diversity in their incoming classes in 2020, but it is not clear that this results from the tests being optional. Granted, because students would typically forgo applying to schools where their test scores might have doomed their applications in the past, this year, they just went ahead and tried. That meant that students applied to more selective schools, giving the schools bigger applicant pools. It is also possible that some higher-income students opted to take a gap year to wait out the pandemic in hopes of having a more “normal” first-year college experience. This leaves room for students who may have previously had less chance of acceptance.
Are the SAT and the ACT Going Away?
This is the million-dollar question. No one can clearly answer this now. Still, higher education institutions find some value in standardized testing as a broad yardstick to help see potential students from vastly different backgrounds, schools, and states in one metric. And students themselves believe they need test scores to get into college. There is a need for a tool like the SATs and ACTs that considers the disparate reasons for scoring differently on standardized tests.
As the whole country continues to rethink education, race, income inequality, and the need for a robust workforce, the way we choose to admit students is likely to change. But it will probably include some measures that can be applied more broadly across the population, no matter how difficult it is to iron out bias from that metric. How we do this remains to be seen.