Understanding & Navigating Test-Optional Policies

The Basics

The impact of COVID-19 on education continues to be immense. With rapid school closures, a fast and sometimes rocky transition to e-learning, and even greater questions around access to education and resources, many colleges and universities have transitioned to being “test optional”.

What is "test optional"?

Test optional means students are not required to provide any standardized testing scores when applying to a college or university, though they are still accepted, reviewed, and considered as part of the application. At test-optional schools, admissions officers will perform a holistic analysis of the students’ grades, rigor of the classes they’ve taken, and their other distinguishing accomplishments. 

Test optional does not mean test blind.

If students submit standardized testing scores as part of their application, those scores will be incorporated into the holistic analysis of the application and used to evaluate applicant fit. Some counselors have made the case that test scores are especially relevant now as grading policies and GPAs are being adjusted this spring and potentially this fall. 

Policies shift for the Class of 2021.

Many colleges have shifted to be test optional for the Class of 2021 in an effort to review applications in the most fair and flexible way. Considering the experiences of thousands upon thousands of low-income and low-access students, medically compromised students, and students with learning accommodations that cannot be fairly met because of school closures, testing access isn’t an even playing field.

Each policy is different.

Test-optional policies vary from school to school. Some schools actively encourage students to submit them, while others require alternative documents if not submitting a test score. Some programs within a university may have different policies than others at that same institution. It’s important to research the revised policies at all schools of interest as their policies will likely differ.

What is the goal?

Increasing diversity on college campuses is a primary goal of test-optional policies. Advocates argue that de-emphasizing test scores and focusing primarily on high school class rank and GPA would allow great numbers of qualified minority, low-income, first generation, and other students to apply. Research behind this idea is inconclusive with both affirming and contradicting studies.

The Impact on Admissions

Multiple studies have been done to evaluate the impact of test-optional policies on college admissions through the lens of diversity, rankings, and student performance.

The impact on diversity is uncertain.

A study by the American Educational Research Association evaluated 180 selective liberal arts colleges in the US over the last 30 year period. Schools that implemented test-optional policies enrolled a lower proportion of underrepresented minorities than did test-requiring schools. At these schools, implementing test-optional policies did not decrease the diversity gap.

Conversely, a smaller study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling gathered data from 28 colleges and universities that had test-optional policies. The found a similar increase in applicants, but also saw gains in the number of Black and Latino students applying and admitted. The underrepresented minority students were also more likely not to submit test scores.

In the time frame since test-optional policies first emerged, additional initiatives have been implemented to increase campus diversity. Without a control group, it’s difficult to assess to what level test-optional policies have impacted colleges making admissions decisions.

Test-optional policies increase applicants and increase perceptions of a school's selectivity.

The same study by the American Educational Research Association showed that adopting test-optional policies impacted those schools being perceived as more selective than previously. The number of applications increased but roughly the same number were admitted. Additionally, the average SAT scores for enrolled students increased alongside the volume of applications. With the higher average score and lower percent of students admitted, many colleges were perceived as being more selective than prior to implementing test-optional policies.

The Impact on Students

Test scores are useful to admissions officers whether or not submitting scores is required.

Those in favor of test-optional policies don’t suggest eliminating tests altogether. Many college admissions officers have spoken about the important role that scores play in decision making. Scores have proved useful in predicting student success, especially as grade inflation may make high school GPAs a less reliable indicator. This is especially significant this year due to the adjusted grading policies resulting from COVID-19.

A holistic admissions process is key.

Many schools have moved to a holistic application review process rather than an applicant ranking system that incorporates scores. A holistic approach  rather than a formula-based approach allows admissions officers to focus more on fit.

Some proponents of test-test optional policies go further and feel that college should stop publishing test score ranges for their admitted classes, arguing that it will reduce anxiety for students. Students could more freely submit applications and colleges could admit students academic profiles are a good fit for their school (but whose test scores may hurt their application and the school’s rankings).

How does test optional impact students in a holistic review process?

Analysis has shown that students who did not submit test scores to test-optional colleges were slightly less likely to be admitted to those colleges. They also had slightly lower GPAs than students who submitted test scores. 

It’s possible that reducing the transparency provided by test scores may make it more challenging for students to know what schools are a “good fit” for them. This could ultimately lead to increased numbers of schools applied to, increased rejections, and increased anxiety for already-stressed high school juniors and seniors. 

Our Stance on Test Optional

We believe: 

  1. Students benefit from standardized tests by using results to identify learning opportunities to master academic skills, skills that help students succeed both on and beyond the tests—in high school, in college, and in their careers.
  2. Standardized tests help students distinguish themselves in the admissions process. A strong standardized test score is important because most schools are not test blind (an important distinction from test optional).
  3. High-quality tests create gravitational pull towards higher achievement; a feature of higher performing education systems is a rigorous, common assessment. Such tests offer important reference points against GPAs that vary from school to school, provide rigorous standards to measure teaching against, drive skills-based instruction, and motivate students to learn.
  4. High-quality tests serve positive instructional ends: they shed light on mastery of college-readiness skills, help students identify important gaps in skills and understanding of material, and afford instructors insights to better individualize their curriculum to the needs of their students. However, we support efforts to improve the content on these tests.
  5. For these instructional reasons, high-stakes tests should trend more in the direction of formative assessments. These tests, designed to measure student growth while students are still actively learning the material, are aligned more clearly with grade-level curriculum, and more directly drive student learning through ongoing feedback and reassessment. 
  6. High-stakes tests like the ACT or SAT should be combined with GPA for college admissions. A holistic application review is essential, rather than considering ACT or SAT in isolation. Ultimately, the scores need to be considered in context with other admissions standards, especially given the inequities in our current educational landscape.
  7. Providing access to the SAT and ACT for all students does allow more students to access higher education. Ultimately, however, we must address the reasons why scores correlate so strongly with income by addressing inequities throughout our K-12 education system that lead to gaps in performance on these tests. For those who lack opportunity or access to standardized tests, it is positive that test optional affords them the opportunity for a holistic review. 

School-specific Policies

Head here to see a list of popular schools and their test requirements.

Matthew Pietrafetta

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