While we don’t yet know the full results of the great pandemic test-optional experiment, emerging evidence from the past year and previous studies of test-optional schools suggest that making entrance tests optional — permanently — is good for higher education and for students. It expands the applicant pipeline, brings more racial, ethnic and economic diversity to campuses, and raises the aspirations of students residing on the tough side of American inequality. Institutions typically claim in their mission statements to be educating future citizen-leaders who will contribute to society, but standardized tests aren’t good predictors of such behavior. Instead, they reify existing wealth and structural advantages. Schools should be encouraging, rather than excluding, excellent students who are not wealthy and face barriers.
What have we learned so far from the pandemic? More than a million students apply to college annually through the Common Application, which enables students to submit a single application to multiple schools. In the 2020-21 admissions cycle, less than half of students who applied through the Common Application submitted an SAT or ACT score, down from nearly 80 percent the year before. Underrepresented minority students in particular took advantage of test-optional policies: Only 40 percent of Black or African American, Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students submitted test scores to large, selective private schools, compared with 61 percent of white and Asian students.
Not surprisingly, selective schools garnered a more diverse set of applicants. According to data from the administrators of the Common App, more selective private schools received substantially more applications from first-generation students (up 20 percent from the year before), students who received an application fee waiver (up 22 percent) and underrepresented minorities (up 24 percent), while less-selective institutions saw fewer applications from these groups. This expansion is consistent with prior research in which Bates College, Mount Holyoke, Providence College and a host of other institutions noted a substantial increase in and diversification of applicants after they made standardized test scores optional.
Among the motivations cited by some early adopters of permanent test-optional policies was a desire to recruit underserved populations to their campuses, and indeed test-optional policies seem to result in more diversity among students not only who apply but who enroll. A recently published study that looked at 100 test-optional colleges’ matriculation results before the pandemic found a 10 to 12 percent increase in enrollment by underrepresented minorities, a 6 to 8 percent increase by women and a 3 to 4 percent increase by Pell Grant recipients when the schools enacted test-optional policies.
But do bigger and more diverse applicant pools translate to student success? It is too soon to evaluate the impact of the great pandemic experiment on college performance, to say nothing of how admission shapes students’ future lives. Yet a recent comprehensive investigation suggests there is no meaningful difference in academic performance among students admitted with and without test scores. One researcher analyzed data from 2008-2016 across nearly 1,700 campuses, comparing schools that switched to test-optional policies with those that did not. She found slightly higher first-year retention rates among the “switchers,” meaning students admitted to test-optional institutions were more likely to return as sophomores, though switcher schools also experienced a slight decrease in six-year graduation rates.
The study of Bates, Mount Holyoke and Providence College also reported no significant difference in the academic quality, college performance or graduation rates of students admitted with SAT scores versus without them. Other research has shown that cumulative high school grade point average is a far better predictor of college success than test scores.
These findings, and the experience of the past year, raise critical questions for colleges and universities going forward: What should count as merit in admissions? What is a fair way to evaluate high school students in a country where advantage and disadvantage are often distributed along lines of race and ethnicity, economic status and zip code?
Proponents of standardized tests argue that given the variability among high schools in grading standards and academic rigor, test scores offer a fair, objective measure of student success. But a testing system that was once touted as a way to increase diversity on campus instead has had detrimental effects.
Standardized test scores correlate strongly with the resources of the applicant’s family, likely reflecting the ability to pay for test preparation, private tutors and high-opportunity educational environments. Some parents go even further and cheat, including finding psychologists who help students feign disability to receive more time to take tests. Meanwhile, less affluent students are more likely to face inexperienced teachers, high-poverty schools, old or irrelevant textbooks or technology, low expectations, soul-killing rote learning, hunger, neighborhood violence or other barriers to learning. The ACT and SAT have become tools for the wealthy to hoard the resources of selective higher education, exacerbating social stratification. Students in the upper half of the SAT/ACT score distribution increase their chances of graduating from college as the selectivity of the college increases. Those who do not get into selective programs often attend under-resourced institutions instead and face more obstacles to graduating.
The mythology of tests scores as merit also can undermine institutions in their professed mission to cultivate citizen-leaders who serve others. In an article advocating for dramatic admissions reform, law professor Lani Guinier cites a study that followed three classes of Harvard College graduates over 30 years and measured their success in terms of financial and career satisfaction, as well as contributions to the community. The study found that the most successful alumni had low SAT scores and came from blue-collar backgrounds. Guinier also points to a study of three generations of graduates of the University of Michigan Law School finding that graduates with higher LSAT scores tended to provide fewer free legal services and devote less time to serving as community leaders. The study also found that a test-centered approach to admissions at the University of Michigan did not predict future success in the legal profession any better than the whole-person approach used to evaluate affirmative action candidates.
It’s no wonder that some disadvantaged students are actively pushing for alternatives to standardized tests. In 2019, a coalition of students, advocates, and the very Black and Latino school district of Compton, in Los Angeles County, sued the University of California system, arguing that relying on the ACT and SAT in admissions unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race, wealth and disability. Last month, the UC system settled the case and agreed to stop using the SAT and ACT in admissions and scholarship decisions, though it reserved the possibility of using some other test by the fall of 2025.
It was a watershed moment. Now that one of the largest, most esteemed public university systems in the United States has agreed to stop using the ACT or SAT to admit students, other large public systems could face similar pressure. And California will soon be able to offer the rest of the country lessons in how to evaluate merit fairly in a high-volume context, without test scores. The pandemic experiment only adds to this momentum.
Of course, banning standardized tests or making them optional is not a panacea for redressing the structures of American inequality or disrupting the advantages of wealth. Higher education institutions will need to address cost barriers by adopting no-loan policies and expanding partnerships with organizations like Questbridge that are revolutionizing how colleges identify and recruit underrepresented achievers.
Still, for all the immensely challenging disruptions the Covid pandemic brought to American education, colleges’ decreased dependence on standardized test scores offers a glimmer of hope for a fairer, more inclusive system. Now it is up to schools to accelerate this progress, rather than returning to the old norms of exclusion.