Scrapping standardized scores
Colleges extend test-optional admissions
When Illinois high school senior Clay Lindner signed up for the ACT last summer, rising COVID-19 infections had closed many testing centers and left students waiting hours in digital queues for remaining seats. So when a computer glitch transferred Lindner’s registration to Arkansas, he didn’t risk competing for another spot in the Chicago area. Instead, he signed up in Kentucky, where there was less risk of cancellation and he could stay with relatives.
“We have the ability to drive all that distance,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “But for a lot of families that don’t have that, what are they going to do?”
The pandemic upended regular testing, leaving many students unable to take standardized tests at all. To accommodate those students, many colleges and universities last year switched their admissions policies to test-optional: Applicants could skip SAT and ACT scores and still get in. Now, as many test centers remain closed, a rising number of schools are extending test-optional policies through fall 2022 or making them permanent. Others are waiting to see if students succeed before they decide whether to stick with the policy.
Some schools already made the SAT and ACT optional for applicants. In New York, Roberts Wesleyan College found SAT scores didn’t predict success for the school’s African American and first-generation students. In 2016, the school made standardized test scores optional for students with grade point averages above 3.5 out of 4. Enrollment head Kimberley Wiedefeld said Roberts has enrolled more racially and economically diverse students since making the switch, which she considers part of its mission as a Christian school. “When confronted with the information that says the SAT and the ACT have zero predictive value for a Black or African American student at Roberts’ campus, I believe it’s an ethical responsibility to say—we can’t continue using this metric,” she said.
But COVID-19 pushed many schools to consider the move that otherwise may not have. Testing improvement organization FairTest estimates more than 1,365 institutions are test-optional for fall 2022, up from 1,070 pre-pandemic. A handful have extended the change for three years. Some that switched to test-optional during the pandemic, like Arcadia University in Pennsylvania and Concordia College in Minnesota, have decided to keep admissions that way permanently. Almost 70 are now test-blind: They won’t consider scores even if students submit them.
There are different ways to weigh applications without tests. Some schools have kept minimum GPA standards or require scores only from certain applicants, such as homeschoolers. At Alabama’s Samford University, where about 35 percent of this year’s applicants didn’t submit scores, enrollment head Jason Black said admissions counselors focused on transcript reviews, essays, and letters of recommendation: “It probably doubled the time that it took to review an applicant.”
Not all students are happy about dropping standardized tests. Some feel extra pressure on other portions of their application, such as grades and extracurriculars, which the pandemic also disrupted. And test-blind admissions frustrate those who hope high scores will offset weak GPAs. In California, Anjalika Nigam said her son, whose ADHD hurt his GPA, scored well on the SAT and was devastated when the University of California system announced last May it would ignore standardized test scores through 2024.
Whether more schools will stick with test-optional policies for good depends on how new students fare. FairTest director Robert Schaeffer told Inside Higher Ed, “Schools that experiment with test-optional admissions almost always keep the policy in place.”
But in the past, schools switched to test-optional after extensive planning, not out of necessity. Admissions counselors, including those at Samford, are focused on helping those admitted during the pandemic as they wait for data on student retention and academic success. “Going test-optional does not strike fear in us,” Black said. “We can make these decisions about permanent policies as the weeks and months unfold.”
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