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Report: Test-Optional Trends in Pandemic Year for College Admissions


Claudia Marroquin, Bowdoin College's Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student AidClaudia Marroquin, Bowdoin College's Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student AidA recent report from Common App studied applicant trends among its member institutions that were test-optional during the 2020-21 application cycle, finding a dramatic drop this past year in those who sent admissions offices scores. Yet applicants’ test reporting behaviors varied across backgrounds.

As many colleges continue test-optional policies this coming application cycle with the pandemic far from over, some admissions and higher education experts point out that test scores often act as barriers for underrepresented, first-generation, and/or low-income students.

“In general, I applaud this move away from requiring standardized tests,” said Dr. Xueli Wang, the Barbara and Glenn Thompson professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Because research has repeatedly shown that the predicted value of these tests is very limited and is very much based on who has access to test prep. Or more deeply, who has access to better educational opportunities all the way from Pre-K to postsecondary and beyond—rather than assessing the student’s capacity for learning.”

The Common Application, or Common App, is a nonprofit membership organization that aims to simplify the college admissions process with more than 900 member institutions, both public and private. This past year, 89% of Common App members did not require test scores, which marked a steep increase compared to the year prior when only a third were test-optional. 

“This was a year where for the first time, we could observe an environment where test scores were not a requirement at most institutions,” said Dr. Preston Magouirk, a data scientist at Common App and one of the report’s co-authors. “But there were so many factors at work with the pandemic that we can’t say this report was about test-optional policies overall. We were looking at these trends specifically in a highly turbulent year.”

The report found that 43% of applicants shared their test scores in 2020-21 compared to 77% the year before and 73% in 2018-19. Yet the decline in submitting test scores was steeper for some groups. For instance, first-generation or underrepresented minority students were less likely to report their scores than students who did not share these identities. Also, their rates of score reporting dropped more dramatically compared to the year before.

“It was striking to see the gap across different student subgroups,” said Magouirk.

Dr. Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University and author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, stressed the importance of understanding the history of standardized testing versus its controversial reality today. The SAT had been designed decades ago to initially help people who did not traditionally have access to college get an education and enter the middle class or beyond. But as Wang noted, studies have shown that not to be the case anymore.

“I think these tests have become one more tool in a competitive game to gain access to the top universities,” said Neem. “While we could say one point of college is to create a new elite, that’s not the real point of college. The real point is to get an advanced education. And the goal of any admissions office then should not be how do I gain prestige but rather will this person be successful and contribute to the campus.”

Neem pointed out that fairly defining success and campus contributions is also challenging. 

The report additionally found that students were selective in where to submit their test scores. About one in four students shared their scores to at least one of their schools but not to all of them. That number jumped from 3% the year before.

“I think eliminating standardized test scores as a requirement of admission is a good thing, but what the numbers show is that maybe it happened faster than colleges and students could react to it fully,” said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Van Der Werf referred to that uptick in some students choosing to send scores to certain schools, not others, seemingly strategically. The report discovered as well that more selective private schools had the highest rates of test score submission compared to their peers.

“When you eliminate [scores] as a requirement, it should open up the doors more to students who are smart but didn’t go to high schools with as many resources to prepare them, for instance,” he added. “Now it’s incumbent on colleges to create processes in their admissions departments that change the expectations of what they’re looking for in applicants so that the promise of test-optional will actually be realized.”

Bowdoin College, a selective private college in Maine, was the first higher education institution to go test-optional in 1969. For decades, the institution has been refining their policy on how to fairly make sense of applicants who do and do not share scores.

“We’re looking for the things that matter not only in the classroom but the intangible qualities of curiosity and motivation,” said Claudia Marroquin, senior vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin. “In many ways, students believe that message more because we are test-optional and have been for decades. They feel they won’t need to submit something that doesn’t speak to their strengths.”

While many schools saw a significant increase in applicants this past year, Marroquin noted that Bowdoin did not experience a spike in prospective students. 

“Part of that is the novelty of being test-optional wasn’t there for us,” she said.

In a typical year, Bowdoin sees about a third of applicants take advantage of test-optional. That grew to about 40% in the 2020-21 application cycle. Marroquin said she was “shocked” that more students did not forgo sending in test scores. Yet they saw more matriculated students were test-optional than in prior years.

“What’s most important here is this is a new reality,” said Van Der Werf. “In one fell swoop, you basically doubled the number of colleges that were test-optional. And so each college supposedly was putting in place processes like, how do I evaluate students when they don’t submit scores and when they do. If you were thinking for a couple of years about this method, you were probably thinking through these processes. But if you were doing this overnight, you probably didn’t have those processes fully in place.”

Neem similarly cautioned what these policies will look like in practice moving forward per institution.

“If schools go test-optional but tests become one more extracurricular thing that privileged students can use to play the game of admissions, then that would not be a good option,” said Neem. “And we should ask ourselves, are these tests useful in determining who will be successful? And if they’re not, then we need to rethink things.”

Marroquin emphasized the bigger picture of test-optional policies as one part of creating a more holistic and inclusive strategy among admissions teams.

“Going test-optional can be seen as a silver bullet to ending educational inequities,” said Marroquin. “But that by itself won’t do it. It takes a lot of continued effort, training staff and trying to challenge any existing biases that might occur. One policy won’t correct everything in the K-12 system. And the policy itself doesn’t change access. It’s the work of admissions teams that goes along with that policy.”

Robert Schaeffer, the executive director of FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy organization that has been pushing for test-optional or test-blind policies since the 1980s, observed that the pandemic thrust many institutions into what research had revealed for years.

“Test-optional is a win-win for students and colleges,” said Schaeffer. “Students see it as a way to be judged as more than a score, and it removes any unfair barrier to access both in reality and in perception. On the college side, institutions get more diverse and academically qualified students.”

He cited reports of some institutions getting more applications from low-income students and students of color without testing requirements. Looking ahead, Schaeffer advocates for more research on these bigger questions of testing, access, and student success. 

“We have always urged schools that are going test-optional to track the data and make it public, to follow the performance of schools admitted without test scores, and to see how well they do regarding grades, retention rates, graduate rates, or other factors,” he said. “We’ll see whether the fast rate of test-optional adoption increases this application year or whether it flattens.”

Magouirk of Common App agrees that additional research is needed to understand these policies and their impact on equitable admissions.

“It’s not really clear the degree to which or whether reporting a test score benefits or doesn’t benefit a student in a world where test scores are not required,” said Magouirk. “We’re not saying that test-optional policies were good or bad this year but rather breaking down what happened in that application cycle. It will be interesting down the road to look at will those policies remain in place, will the reporting trends remain in place, will the gaps remain in place.” 

Some experts argue that with this next application cycle, colleges can work to communicate to underrepresented students what a test-optional policy really involves at their institution.

“A lot of students might think that I got to submit scores anyways, or how is it going to hurt me to submit, or I would never apply to that college because I didn’t take the SAT, and I don’t really trust that they are test-optional,” said Van Der Werf. “So, while colleges are refining their internal processes, they also need to be refining their outreach policies and talking with students about what test-optional really could mean for them.”

Wang agreed and hopes for more equitable admissions practices in the years to come.

“We say it’s optional, but if there isn’t a mechanism where the scores don’t matter, then we’re just reinforcing the inequities that we say we’re trying to eliminate,” she said. “That requires some creative and hard thinking.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]

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