ACT, SAT 'Test Optional' College Admissions Gain Ground. But Schools and Students Should Be Skeptical
Efforts to remove college admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT from application requirements are gaining momentum this year, with more than half of four-year universities offering to make the tests optional at least in some cases, particularly for students coping with massive testing disruptions this spring.
Yet the tests have not taken as much of a back seat in the college process as students and schools may believe, and it's not yet clear what role they will play in students' paths to college after the immediate chaos of the pandemic.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which tracks college admission policies, reported this week that 1,240 of the 2,330 U.S. schools that confer bachelor's degrees have made traditional admissions tests optional—as well as more than 60 of the so-called "Top 100" universities, including Brown, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, Northwestern, and Yale.
Civil rights groups doubled down on the push to stop using the tests. A coalition led by the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law launched a letter-writing campaign to eliminate exams from admissions at 30 additional major universities. In California, where the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously in May to phase out the test requirements for in-state students over the next five years, advocates filed an amended lawsuit calling for the university system to immediately stop using the tests for all admissions and scholarship decisions.
"We are excited by the momentum and consider this a sort of first push amid a longer process to get rid of the consideration of the tests and make sure that colleges are also adopting complementary policies that support marginalized and underrepresented groups," said Genevieve "Genzie" Bonadies Torres, counsel at the Lawyers' Committee's Educational Opportunities Project.
Well over a third of the colleges cited by FairTest adopted the change just this spring, in the wake of widescale missed or canceled testing during the pandemic emergency closures. Emanuelle Sippy, a rising senior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., and co-director of the Prichard Committee student voice team, became one of the high school students advocating for more holistic admissions systems after her own SAT administration was canceled when the school closed due to COVID-19.
"That was the only free test, and the only one where students don't have to worry about things like transportation," Sippy said. "I had never been a fan of standardized tests, just knowing some of the inequities that kind of permeate metrics ... but you know, when schools closed, the inequities became even more stark and it was obvious that we couldn't ignore those problems."
The sheer number of colleges adopting test-optional admissions will provide an opportunity to find out how effective the policy is in diversifying higher education. Women and students of color have been found more likely than other students to chose not to submit test scores when they are optional; some studies have found this leads to more diverse campuses, while others have found the diversity gains short-lived and others argue it must be part of a broader overhaul of the admissions process.
One large-scale study found in colleges with test-optional policies, those who did not submit test scores were less likely to be admitted, and they had slightly lower grades in their first year—but later, these students were just as or even more likely to complete their degrees than students who had submitted test scores.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, urged colleges to "equally consider" students who were unable to take the tests after the board had to cancel efforts to provide immediate make-up tests or administer tests from home. But the emergency nature of the policies may undercut attempts to broaden their impact; the vast majority of new college policies cover only the graduating high school Class of 2021, and others have set the policies as pilot programs, limited them to in-state students or those with minimum GPAs, or added other caveats.
"The issue is that there will be expectations that students take the test anyway, despite the official policies universities announce," said Pam Lumagbas, an operation associate with Cardinal Education, a college admissions consulting group in California. "Those who take the test and prove themselves with high test scores will have an advantage because they will have differentiated themselves."
That was why Amanda Savage, a staff attorney with Public Counsel, said the group is continuing a lawsuit against the University of California system to remove the tests completely from admissions and scholarship considerations.
"Multiple U.C. leaders stated explicitly that the tests are racist and acknowledge that the tests serve as a proxy for privilege," Savage said. She added that "the standardized testing task force acknowledged that U.C. lacks a 'definitive answer to the question of whether the test and the items making up the tests are biased against members of particular subgroups of test-takers,' which is a question that California taxpayers and prospective students would reasonably expect U.C. to resolve before continuing to use these tests as admissions factors."
ACT did not comment, but the College Board responded that its original test—which has been historically criticized for items considered racially biased—was overhauled in 2016, with items going through a two-year pretesting and validation process to ensure they do not penalize students from specific racial, ethnic, or income groups.
"All vestiges of the aptitude approach used to develop the early SAT 100 years ago have been eliminated," the group said in an email. "Gone are the infamous 'SAT words,' penalties for guessing, and math that isn't necessary for college work."
The board pointed to evaluations suggesting that admissions tests used in combination with a student's high school grades were the best predictor of a student's likelihood of success in higher education.
Deeper Look at Students
Yet advocates of eliminating the tests argue other parts of the scores make it too easy for college officials to eliminate large swaths of students for consideration based on cutoffs that have not been shown to predict students' likelihood of success.
"Colleges have a wealth of information available to them in application files," Bonadies Torres said. "They're looking at teacher recommendation letters, their classes. They're looking at GPA, they're looking at trends for that student over time. ... Once you account for all those other factors, this test is not telling you much more about a student's capacity to do well in school."
Thang Diep is a case in point. Diep and his family immigrated from Vietnam to Los Angeles when he was 8 years old, but he said he was still having challenges as an English-language learner when he took the SAT.
"For me, there were things in the test that were not necessarily second-language-English-friendly. There was a lot of understanding words in contexts that might not fit in the culture of a different country," he said.
He was able to get admitted to Harvard after a good interview, but said he was disheartened that his file had been marked as having a low SAT score.
"When you come from a public school in a low-income neighborhood and you are with people who took test-prep courses and had trips paid for to other countries, learning to navigate that is hard," he said.
Diep ultimately studied neurobiology and graduated in Harvard University's Class of 2019; today, he helps other low-income high school students access college while preparing for medical school himself. Looking back, "I don't think my test score should have played a role in admissions," he said. "I was in classes with people who had higher SAT scores than I had and I did as well as they did, if not sometimes better. If anything, my test score served as a barrier for what I imagined for myself was possible."