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Defending Test-optional Policies in Colleges and Universities

Briana O’ NealBriana O’ Neal

The SAT was created in 1926 with the intention of broadening college access for those who were not afforded the opportunity to attend prep schools. The ACT was developed 33 years later as an alternative to the SAT, which, it was argued, was geared toward the more elite institutions. Today, I would argue that both tests serve as a barrier to college access for low-income, first-generation and minority students.

I had the opportunity to serve as a college adviser for low-income students at an underfunded high school with a majority Black population. I had the pleasure of working with many talented, smart, driven students who dreamed of college and careers that would lead to a better life for them and their families. They did everything in their power to be a competitive college applicant: they studied hard to get the best grades they could, developed meaningful relationships with teachers who served as recommenders, and completed draft after draft of their application essays until they were perfect. And then came the most dreaded piece of the admissions process: test scores.

Time and again I had heartbreaking conversations with students who, after weeks of crafting their applications, received letter after letter telling them that their application had been deferred pending higher test scores. I worked very closely with my students to hold test prep workshops and individual study sessions. One of my most determined students took six college admissions tests—he sat through three administrations of the SAT as well as three administrations of the ACT—to no avail. His scores were roughly the same each time. Although my heart broke for him, this came as no surprise.  Literature tells us that, historically, students of color do not perform as well on standardized tests as their White counterparts. This prevents a number of students from being considered not only at our nation’s most selective institutions, but also at less selective institutions since some states, like North Carolina, have established a minimum required score on either the SAT or the ACT for admission to public institutions.

The use of SAT and ACT scores as an evaluation tool also leaves underrepresented students disadvantaged when it comes to the opportunity for merit scholarships since many institutions have tied eligibility to test scores as well as GPA. A nationally representative study of institutional based merit grants found that “almost 60 percent of these grants went to students from above the median income level, and $727 million, or 13 percent of the total, went to students from families making above $125,000.”

While some may argue that test-optional institutions run the risk of admitting and funding underprepared students, many schools have seen little to no difference in success between the students who chose to submit scores and those who did not. DePaul University implemented a test-optional policy in 2012 and found no difference in the grades of submitters versus non-submitters and a difference of only one percentage point in retention from first to second year. A study of Mount Holyoke College, a test-optional school, revealed that the “admissions office rated applicants who withheld their scores more highly than they otherwise would have been rated.”[1]

The flip side of this coin is that the use of test scores in admissions and scholarship processes affects student choice. There is a problem among low-income and first-generation college students with undermatching. My experiences have shown that students will shy away from applying to colleges or scholarship programs that would be a good fit for them because their published average SAT scores can be intimidating. A recent study shows that students who take advantage of test-optional policies are overwhelmingly first-generation, low-income, and minority students.

Institutions and policymakers that are concerned with equity and access should consider going test-optional. Over 800 schools have adopted this model already, including highly selective institutions like Wake Forest University and The George Washington University. While it may be too early in this movement to determine the level of impact test-optional admission has on access and diversification of admitted students, literature already tells us that GPA is a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores and that being test-optional will open doors for the students who need it most. In a society that is seeing larger growth in Black and brown populations—populations that have lower median household incomes and attend college at lower rates than Whites—we must make sure that we are providing aid and instituting policies that are increasing access.

Briana O’Neal is a research assistant at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.

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