While the full outcomes of the great pandemic test-optional experiment are still unknown, there is emerging evidence to suggest that making entrance tests optional permanently is beneficial for higher education and students. This approach expands the pool of applicants, resulting in increased racial, ethnic, and economic diversity on campuses. It also raises the aspirations of students who face challenges due to inequality in America. Standardized tests are not reliable predictors of future success as they reinforce existing advantages and wealth. Instead of excluding excellent students who are not wealthy and face barriers, schools should be encouraging their enrollment.
The pandemic has taught us some valuable lessons. In the 2020-21 admissions cycle, less than half of the students who applied through the Common Application submitted an SAT or ACT score. Underrepresented minority students took advantage of the test-optional policies, with a lower percentage of Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander students submitting test scores compared to white and Asian students.
Test-optional policies have led to more diverse applicant pools at selective schools. These schools have seen a significant increase in applications from first-generation students, students receiving application fee waivers, and underrepresented minorities. This pattern is consistent with previous research conducted at Bates College, Mount Holyoke, Providence College, and other institutions that observed a substantial increase and diversification of applicants after implementing test-optional policies.
Test-optional policies have not only resulted in greater diversity among applicants but also among enrolled students. A recent study examining matriculation results at 100 test-optional colleges before the pandemic found an increase in enrollment by underrepresented minorities, women, and Pell Grant recipients when these schools implemented test-optional policies.
The impact of the pandemic experiment on college performance and the long-term effects on students’ lives are yet to be evaluated. However, a comprehensive investigation analyzing data from 2008-2016 across nearly 1,700 campuses found no significant difference in academic performance between students admitted with and without test scores. Test-optional schools experienced slightly higher first-year retention rates, indicating that students admitted to these institutions were more likely to continue their education beyond the first year. However, there was a slight decrease in six-year graduation rates for these schools.
Studies conducted at Bates College, Mount Holyoke, and Providence College also found no notable differences in academic quality, college performance, or graduation rates between students admitted with SAT scores and those without them. Other research has shown that a student’s cumulative high school grade point average is a better predictor of college success than test scores.
These findings, along with the experiences of the past year, raise important questions for colleges and universities moving forward. What should be considered merit in admissions? How can high school students be evaluated fairly in a country where advantages and disadvantages are often linked to race, ethnicity, economic status, and zip code?
Proponents of standardized tests argue that they provide a fair and objective measure of student success, given the variation in grading standards and academic rigor among high schools. However, the testing system, once seen as a means to increase campus diversity, has had detrimental effects. Standardized test scores strongly correlate with a student’s family resources, reflecting their ability to afford test preparation, private tutors, and high-quality educational environments. Some parents even go as far as cheating, seeking help from psychologists to fake disabilities and gain extra time for tests. On the other hand, less affluent students are more likely to encounter inexperienced teachers, high-poverty schools, outdated resources, low expectations, and various barriers to learning. The ACT and SAT have become tools for the wealthy to monopolize selective higher education resources, further exacerbating social stratification. Students with higher SAT/ACT scores have a greater chance of graduating from college, particularly from selective programs. Those who do not gain admission to selective programs often end up attending under-resourced institutions and face more obstacles to graduation.
The perception of test scores as the sole measure of merit can undermine institutions’ mission to cultivate citizen-leaders who serve others. Studies have shown that successful alumni often had low SAT scores and came from blue-collar backgrounds. Test-centered approaches to admissions did not predict future success in the legal profession any better than the holistic evaluation approach used for affirmative action candidates.
It comes as no surprise that disadvantaged students are advocating for alternatives to standardized tests. In 2019, a coalition of students, advocates, and the Compton school district in Los Angeles County sued the University of California system, arguing that using the ACT and SAT in admissions unfairly discriminated based on race, wealth, and disability. The UC system recently settled the case and agreed to stop using the SAT and ACT in admissions and scholarship decisions, with the possibility of adopting another test by 2025. This decision sets a precedent, and other large public university systems may face similar pressure. California now has the opportunity to lead the way in evaluating merit fairly in high-volume contexts without relying on test scores. The pandemic experiment only adds to this momentum.
Banning or making standardized tests optional is not a cure-all for addressing the structures of American inequality or dismantling the advantages of wealth. Higher education institutions must also address cost barriers by implementing no-loan policies and expanding partnerships with organizations like Questbridge, which are redefining how underrepresented achievers are identified and recruited.
Despite the immense challenges brought by the Covid pandemic, the decreased reliance on standardized test scores in college admissions offers hope for a fairer and more inclusive system. Schools must now accelerate this progress instead of reverting to exclusionary norms.