Updated: Oct 29, 2021
More than 1,000 colleges and universities have dropped the requirement that applicants must submit either SAT or ACT test scores. The test-optional movement has become entrenched as a viable approach to admissions and its potential is expanding. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed notes that, “When the movement started, most of the competitive schools that went test-optional were small liberal arts colleges. But new institutions have included a number that have competitive admissions and are much larger than the original liberal arts college cohort.”
The standardized SAT and ACT exams have performed their function well for more than half a century, so you may wonder what’s behind this major shift in the admissions policies of so many colleges. Why change now? The factors below have supported the test-optional trend.
Rationale for the Test-Optional Movement
Quality of Applicants — One reason that colleges shift to test-optional admissions is to enhance their recruiting programs in a competitive market. Test-optional policies are popular, so they induce more students to apply. The more applicants from whom a college can elicit applications, the more selective they can be in choosing students of the highest quality to join their freshman classes.
Fairness — Many colleges adopt test-optional policies due to awareness that test scores reflect a linear relationship with socioeconomic status. The gap between the test results of high-income and low-income students grows yearly. Institutions have gone test-optional to remedy this inferred bias in order to avoid disadvantaging minority and low-income applicants.
Rankings — College administrators have another reason for dropping test requirements, one that’s unstated; it can raise their position in college rankings. Test scores are a key factor in the ranking algorithms of the magazines that publish rankings annually. When test scores are optional, average scores rise because only applicants with high scores submit them. Moreover, as noted above, test-optional policies have great appeal, so more students will apply to a college if it’s test-optional. Since freshmen class size stays about the same from year to year, the result is a decline in a college’s admissions rate. The lower the admissions rate, the higher a school is likely to be ranked.
Students shouldn’t rely on magazine rankings to select colleges. The rankings are based solely on a college’s quantitative data and, by necessity, ignore a student’s more important subjective preferences. Nevertheless, some students and parents do rely on them, so administrators are acting rationally when they take steps to raise their rankings that don’t damage their school’s reputation.
Rationale Against the Test-Optional Movement
Although there are now 1,060 institutions with test-optional admissions policies, this represents only about 25% of the total. There are still over 3,000 4-year institutions that require SAT/ACT scores. Let’s consider their reasoning.
Recent studies show that grades in high school are a better predictor of success in college than SAT/ACT scores. However, with grade inflation, different curricula, and a wide variance in the level of difficulty of high schools, colleges are forced to discern each applicant’s actual abilities by using methodologies that are bound to be imperfect. To further complicate things, the calculation of GPA isn’t standardized. High schools vary in the GPA points that they assign to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Honors courses. Thus, admissions committees know they can’t really compare “apples-to-apples” when measuring the grades of applicants against their peers.
The bottom line is that the only standardized tool available to accurately compare applicants relative to each other is SAT/ACT scores. This is the primary reason why most colleges continue to require test scores as part of admissions.
Students Should Be Wary of Relying Only on Grades
From the student’s perspective, it’s easy to decide not to submit your test scores if you think that they’re inadequate. But keep in mind that choosing to rely only on your grades runs the risk of not having a sufficiently impressive GPA when the time comes to apply to colleges. And, in addition to outstanding grades, you are likely to need stellar extracurricular activities to boost the likelihood of your admission.
Rather than relying exclusively on grades, a better approach may be to schedule another SAT/ACT test and work hard to raise your so that your scores better reflect your full academic worth[CL1] . This may enable you to submit scores to colleges knowing that they’re at least in the low end of the acceptable range. At many institutions, an improved score has the added benefit of raising the probability of receiving a merit scholarship or an increase in a merit scholarship amount. Some institutions, such as the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi, post a sliding merit scale on their websites. A small increase in a student’s scores can translate into significant aid when multiplied by four years.
Tracking the Test-Optional Movement
FairTest is a nonprofit organization that seeks to end what they perceive as the unfairness of the SAT/ACT exams. Among other things, FairTest lists the institutions that have adopted test-optional policies. An additional 47 institutions opted out of test requirements in 2019, bringing the total nationally to 1,060 colleges. Selected institutions from FairTest’s list are shown below in Table A.
Table A: Colleges and Universities with Test-Optional Policies
Source: FairTest National Center for Fair and Open Testing
Sample Experiences of Institutions with Test-Optional Policies
Wake Forest University — Wake Forest dropped the test requirement for all applicants when its admissions committee concluded that the tests track family income far more accurately than academic ability. Before dropping the requirement, minorities made up 12% of freshmen. Four years later, they represented 16%. Wake Forest administrators learned that, although a test-free policy alone won’t increase diversity sufficiently, it’s a good first step.
University of Chicago — Chicago adopted a test-optional policy last year. This signaled to other large research universities that a requirement for standardized test scores isn’t essential to admissions decisions. According to the Washington Post, “The change by Chicago cracked what had been a solid and enduring wall of support for the primary admission tests among the two dozen most prestigious research universities.” An Inside Higher Ed poll of admissions leaders found that a majority believe that Chicago’s decision is influencing other institutions and 17% said that it was prompting a reconsideration of their own policy. Chicago’s new policy also made clear that colleges that go test-optional aren’t motivated only to raise their rankings. Chicago has no need to do so. It’s ranked 6th in the U.S. News & World Report 2020 rankings for national universities and its admissions rate is the 4th lowest in the country. Chicago’s test scores have been very high, with the middle 50% of freshmen in 2018 scoring 1490-1560 on the SAT and 33-35 on the ACT.
Hampshire College — Several years ago, Hampshire College, a liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, stopped accepting SAT/ACT scores from all applicants. Administrators have reported that, without scores, they’ve admitted freshman classes that have significantly higher grades than those in previous years.
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