Why you should care
A record number of colleges no longer require standardized tests for admission, but minorities remain underrepresented.
Three decades ago, two liberal arts colleges — Bates College and Bowdoin College — zigged where so many others had zagged, becoming essentially the only major colleges to not require SAT or ACT scores from potential applicants. On their backs, a Boston-based organization called FairTest began advocating in 1985 for de-emphasizing test scores in American universities. Together, they launched one of the most galvanizing debates in higher education, one that rages still today.
Now, there are more than 1,000 colleges that no longer require testing results, FairTest announced earlier this year. That includes more than a third of American nonprofit four-year universities, with recent additions including such prestigious institutions as George Washington University and University of Chicago. Test abolitionists have long argued that high school grades, not testing, are the best predictor of collegiate performance. But even as many colleges jump on the bandwagon, one of their key arguments — that eliminating testing would improve student body diversity — has come under fire.
Three professors at the University of Georgia conducted a study entitled, “The Test-Optional Movement at America’s Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boon for Equity, or Something Else?” They found:
No changes in low-income and underrepresented student enrollment after the colleges went test-optional.
In fact, being test-optional actually made colleges more selective, as they received a surge in applications, says Kelly Ochs Rosinger, one of the researchers of the 2014 study examining college admissions data from 1992 to 2010. That increase in applicants allowed the colleges to tout themselves as pickier, thus improving their standings in college-ranking algorithms. The schools also saw applicants’ average SAT and ACT scores skyrocket, likely because anyone with poor scores could choose not to submit them.
Meanwhile, the actual minority representation on college campuses remained stagnant. Eliminating testing “can remove one barrier,” says Ochs Rosinger, who is now a professor at Penn State University. But other barriers remain. Jack Buckley, editor of a compendium of higher education studies, Measuring Success, published in December, says most researchers found making tests optional had little broad effect. “Simply removing a testing requirement by itself is not sufficient,” Buckley says, although he argues that it can’t be dismissed as a way to inflate school rankings, since most ranking systems have adjusted for the change.
Fans of test-optional say researchers are fighting straw men. “Nobody has said it is sufficient by itself to address longstanding issues of inequality,” says Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, which advocates for equitable testing policies. He notes, though, that test scores often influence merit-based scholarship offers, so requiring tests that have been proven to be biased against disadvantaged students also exacerbates the financial problem minorities face. Test-optional colleges have been proven to boost the number of diverse applicants, and the average high school GPA of those applicants rises, too. “There are continued potshots at test-optional, particularly from the testing industry,” Schaeffer says.
He complains the data used by Ochs Rosinger and the study’s co-authors was “crappy,” saying some of the 32 test-optional colleges (of 180 total schools studied) were in their first year or two of the new policy. And some recent studies provide a more nuanced view. The 2018 National Association for College Admission Counseling report, for example, found that more than two-thirds of 28 institutions studied were seen to have increased the number and percentage of minorities enrolled from 2015-2016.
“There’s a mixed picture here,” says the NACAC study’s author, Bill Hiss. Those who don’t submit test scores are admitted at a slightly lower rate. But of those who are accepted, the “yield,” or how many students actually choose to enroll at that school, is much higher. “Are those kids more likely to be first-generation, minority, low-income or female students? The answer is yes,” Hiss adds.
Both sides agree that testing isn’t the only issue that must be addressed in order to eliminate bias in the admissions process. From economic barriers to a lack of education around college applications, financial aid and accessibility, minority high schoolers often start behind the eight ball. While some universities, such as Franklin and Marshall, have built out aid services to cover the cost between Pell Grants and tuition, Buckley says others should work harder to build talent pipelines from high schools in underappreciated communities of color — real steps toward addressing the problem that test-optional purports to solve.