Going Test-Optional with Equity in Mind
Colleges and universities across the nation are revisiting nearly every aspect of their operations in order to best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of SAT and ACT administration changes and cancellations, at least 70 colleges and university systems have implemented test-optional policies, which either eliminate the requirement for prospective students to submit standardized test scores or make their submission optional. The policies also vary in terms of their permanence: Amherst College, Boston University, the University of California system and many more have implemented a one-year pilot with plans to re-evaluate these policies in the future. Other institutions, like Tufts University and Davidson College, have announced three-year pilots for their test-optional policies. Although not as common, institutions like The College of Wooster, University of Oregon, and Oregon State University have decided to permanently adopt their new test-optional policies.
Perhaps counterintuitively, without careful attention, there is some concern that the rapid shift to test-optional policies at selective colleges and universities may have a detrimental effect on access for underrepresented students. While it is the case that standardized test results are strongly correlated with income and race, the available empirical evidence suggests that, broadly, test-optional policies may have no impact on enrollment diversity. Indeed, such policies may actually dissuade underrepresented students from applying due to an increase in “perceived selectivity” resulting from a rise in average scores as only applicants with high scores submit them.
There are some strong anecdotal examples of selective colleges and universities whose test-optional policies promote equity in their admissions processes and create more opportunities for lower-income students, students of color, and women.
Yet, there are some strong anecdotal examples of selective colleges and universities whose test-optional policies promote equity in their admissions processes and create more opportunities for lower-income students, students of color, and women. For instance, Worcester Polytechnic University and George Mason University both increased the diversity of their applicant pool and enrollment cohort through test-optional policies. These institutions and others achieved these results through intentional planning and a commitment to continuous improvement, both of which are more difficult during these trying times.
Despite the circumstances, selective colleges and universities should view the shift to test-optional as an opportunity to make their admissions processes more equitable. To do so, presidents and senior leaders must a) emphasize commitments to access and opportunity in test-optional policy design and communications, b) refine their admissions processes to account for diverse experiences and provide additional support, c) adequately train and support admissions staff, and d) monitor and evaluate the impact of these changes on application and enrollment rates of underrepresented students. Below, we expound on these actions and provide some concrete examples of each.
Emphasize commitments to access and opportunity in policy design and communications
Many of the recent communications from selective colleges and universities about their motivation for going test-optional rightly focus on concerns for students’ health and safety, reducing students’ anxiety, and supporting students as they face the unique challenges of the pandemic. These communications typically also emphasize that test-optional policies do not change the institutions’ selection processes and high admissions standards. Few, if any, of these announcements also explain how the test-optional policy relates to the institution’s commitments to increase access and opportunity for underrepresented students.
Under normal circumstances, going test-optional may change underrepresented students’ perceptions about institutional selectivity in ways that can inhibit them from applying. These concerns may or may not apply in the COVID-19 context, but institutions should still be careful to use language that encourages, rather than discourages, underrepresented students to apply. While it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and test cancellations, it is equally important to situate these policy changes within an institution’s broader commitments to excellence, equity, and diversity. Similarly, while it is important to maintain a commitment to academic quality, it is equally (perhaps more) important to simultaneously insist that not all exceptional students perform well on standardized tests.
While it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and test cancellations, it is equally important to situate these policy changes within an institution’s broader commitments to excellence, equity, and diversity.
Selective institutions that implemented test-optional policies before the crisis may provide a helpful guide. For instance, when the University of Denver went test-optional in 2019, Chancellor Emerita Chopp announced the policy by articulating how the new policy aligns with DU’s strategic priorities of increasing access for talented, underrepresented students. She said, “The University of Denver is committed to access, equity and diversity, and this decision strengthens that commitment. A test-optional admissions process aligns with our strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025, by removing barriers for those who may lack standardized test-prep resources but who are exceptional students.” Similarly, Allegheny College states on its website that standardized tests “do not exclusively reflect [a student’s] full range of abilities or potential to succeed in college,” and that going test-optional is an essential strategy to increase the diversity of their incoming class.
Refine admissions processes with equity in mind
When moving to test-optional admissions, selective colleges and universities should take care to refine their admissions criteria in ways that minimize bias as much as possible. Many selective institutions already purport to conduct holistic reviews, and as such, a shift to test-optional may not substantively change their application review process. For those institutions that heavily weight standardized tests, a shift to test-optional may require more substantial changes to their application and admissions processes: some may request supplementary materials in lieu of standardized tests and others may emphasize existing aspects of the application.
Supplemental application materials–like additional letters of recommendation or resource-intensive portfolios–may unintentionally create new barriers for underrepresented students if they have the same inherent biases as standardized tests. Further, rather than leveling the playing field, supplemental materials may actually provide affluent students with additional opportunities to stand out in the admissions pool. Worcester Polytechnic University (WPI), for instance, reversed course on requiring a supplemental project as it disadvantaged talented students who lacked the resources or mentorship to complete such a project.
If, rather than requesting supplemental information, selective institutions choose to emphasize existing aspects of the application, then they must evaluate the inherent bias in those existing criteria. Many institutions already rely on traditional “extracurricular activities“–which likely disadvantage students without the resources to participate in these activities or who have financial or family obligations–and letters of recommendation–which research suggests are biased against underrepresented and female students. For instance, the University of Chicago now allows prospective students to opt to submit a two-minute video introduction in lieu of alumni and on-campus interviews. Similarly, Temple University asks applicants who opt to withhold their test scores to answer short self-reflective questions instead.
Some selective colleges and universities that announced a COVID-related test-optional policy still require prospective students to submit test scores to be considered for merit scholarships. This approach is at odds with commitments to increase access and opportunity for underrepresented students. If institutions can adequately assess students’ admissions potential without test scores, then they should similarly be able to assess their eligibility for merit scholarships. The University of St. Thomas, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, George Washington University, and Tulane University are a few examples of institutions that explicitly consider prospective students for merit scholarships whether or not they submit standardized test scores.
Implementing test-optional policies may lead to more talented, underrepresented students in the applicant pool, but measurable changes in the diversity of the enrolled class will also likely require additional need-based financial aid.
Finally, selective colleges and universities–especially those that account for students’ financial need in admissions–must consider test-optional policies alongside their financial aid commitments. Implementing test-optional policies may lead to more talented, underrepresented students in the applicant pool, but measurable changes in the diversity of the enrolled class will also likely require additional need-based financial aid. In fact, research suggests that the average amount of demonstrated need increases after implementing a test-optional policy.
Adequately train and support staff
Underrepresented students will need more support than ever in navigating the college admissions process, especially as both admissions timelines and students’ own circumstances are in flux. These students are disproportionately affected by COVID-19’s impacts on the higher education pipeline: restricted access to guidance counselors and other supports due to high school closures; delays in and changes to college admissions deadlines and decisions; rapid changes in financial positions and preferences; and much more.
Selective colleges and universities must deploy admissions staff to support underrepresented students in navigating these complexities and making informed decisions. Admissions staff must prioritize clear, regular, and transparent communications with prospective underrepresented students about new timelines and policies, including details about test-optional policies. For instance, Rice University has proactively reached out to admitted students from low-income backgrounds to ask if they need any additional support or clarification about enrollment. The University of Oregon published a clear, comprehensive FAQ on their admissions website that articulates how their test-optional policy will change the application process and how students can signal that they will not submit scores.
Admissions staff must prioritize clear, regular, and transparent communications with prospective underrepresented students about new timelines and policies, including details about test-optional policies.
For those institutions that, before COVID-19, relied heavily on test scores to make admissions decisions, shifting to a test-optional admissions approach may require significant training and support for admissions staff. Strategies to minimize bias and contextualize the students’ application must be a key component of this training and support. In addition, admissions staff should plan for holistic application review to take substantially more resources than traditional review. For instance, as the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College shifted to holistic reviews that contextualized student achievement, they implemented two-person teams to assess academic and non-academic credentials.
Monitor and evaluate the impact of test-optional policies on access and opportunity
In both certain and uncertain times, evaluation and continuous improvement in test-optional implementation are essential to promoting equity and diversity in admissions, enrollment, and persistence. This evaluation is needed both at the institution- and sector-level to ensure that test-optional policies promote access for underrepresented students rather than inhibit it. Whether test-optional policies were already in place, are now enacted only for the shorter-term, or are a permanent shift in admissions policy, selective colleges and universities must commit to a rigorous assessment of the impact of these policies.
For example, Ithaca College conducted rigorous data analyses to inform test-optional policy design and implementation and then, before committing to the policy permanently, studied the impact of the policy on the diversity and preparedness of their applicants and admitted students. After its first year of test-optional, the college achieved a more diverse pool of applicants and enrolled a more diverse class, all while maintaining a nearly identical average GPA and high school class rank. Similarly, Stonehill College evaluated whether students who did not submit test scores persisted and achieved at similar levels as students who opted to submit scores. They found that in Fall 2010, 87 percent of Stonehill students who did not submit scores returned for their sophomore year compared to 85 percent of students who did submit scores.
Selective institutions nationwide are now undertaking test-optional policies without the benefit of careful planning and implementation. Yet, they should design these policies in ways that make rigorous evaluation possible in the future and commit to performing that evaluation whether they maintain test-optional policies or not. For instance, under normal circumstances, St. Mary’s College of Maryland requires all matriculating students to submit standardized test scores for the purposes of institutional research. This allows St. Mary’s to evaluate the extent to which students’ other characteristics predict student success. If, due to COVID-19, admitted applicants did not take the SAT or ACT, St. Mary’s and other institutions could ask them to submit other standardized test scores, like the PSAT.
Finally, while individual institutions may report positive effects of test optional policies on access for underrepresented students, these impacts may differ across the higher education sector and will be difficult to evaluate. For instance, student, institutional, and systemic responses to COVID-19–K-12 school closures, changes to application and enrollment patterns, changes to institutional policies and operations, broad economic disruptions, widespread stress, etc.–may affect the sorting of students across institutions in ways that obscure the impact of test-optional policies. Similarly, the broad adoption of test-optional policies in response to COVID-19 disrupts the typical use of non-test-optional schools as plausible counterfactuals. These factors, and others, will make identifying the effect of a test-optional policy much more difficult, but no less important. As institutions consider more permanent test-optional policies, researchers must employ sophisticated empirical techniques to explore the impact of these policies on underrepresented students’ access to opportunity.
Adopting a test-optional policy is not a standalone solution to increase socioeconomic diversity, but it can present an opportunity for institutions to incorporate equity-minded principles into their admissions processes. Now more than ever, institutions should seize this opportunity to employ test-optional policies in ways that reaffirm a commitment to increase access for underrepresented students, or, at a minimum, reduce any potential harm. They do this by aligning test-optional policies to equity-focused outcomes, carefully adapting admissions criteria to avoid introducing new biases, and training and supporting admissions staff to carry out changes equitably. And rigorous assessment–both at the institution-level and across the sector–is needed to identify and scale the policies and approaches that are most effective at increasing access and opportunity.
For additional information on the motivations behind test-optional policies and the research landscape, please review our previous blog post: How Do Test-Optional or Test-Flexible Policies Affect Access and Opportunity?
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