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This year, just about every competitive college -- and plenty of not-so-competitive ones -- went test optional (or test blind) in admissions. The push was the result of the pandemic, of course, and many of the newly test-optional colleges are leaving open the possibility that they will stay test optional. They will just need research, they say, on the impact of their decisions.

As it happens, last week a paper on the topic was published in the American Educational Research Journal. The paper, by Christopher T. Bennett, examined the impact of test-optional admissions on nearly 100 private colleges that adopted their policies between 2005-06 and 2015-16.

The findings associated test-optional policies with:

  • A 3-4 percent increase in Pell Grant recipients enrolled.
  • A 10-12 percent increase in first-time students from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • A 6-8 percent increase in first-time enrollment of women.

Past studies have revealed similar findings (although the finding on women is new), but the study's release comes at a time when many colleges are anxious for such research. Bennett, who is finishing his doctoral degree at Vanderbilt University, did not receive any outside funding for the work.

Bennett said in an interview that he saw one difference between the colleges he studied and the colleges that have just admitted their first class of test-optional students: the time they prepared for the change.

Most colleges in the past that have switched to test optional have devoted years to the process, and they have planned carefully. That can't be said about all the colleges that switched in the last year.

Test optional "is a step in the right direction," he said. But if diversity is the goal, "they need a broader plan."

"People usually focus on what's no longer there -- the test scores," he said. But colleges need to look at everything involved in admissions and ask what serves a real purpose and what doesn't.

He also pointed to the impact of going test optional on women's enrollment.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute went test optional and experienced a surge -- 99 percent in applications and enrollments increased by 81 percent -- in women. Bennett said his study included some STEM-oriented colleges like WPI but many that were not STEM oriented, and they still had more women applying, being admitted and enrolling.

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes standardized testing, said via email that Bennett's study provides "statistical evidence that adopting ACT/SAT optional policies typically results in more applicants, better qualified applicants, and more diverse applicants of all sorts. His conclusions also coincide with the admissions data recently reported by many schools that suspended standardized exam requirements in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic."

He added, "No one has ever claimed that test-optional policies are a 'magic bullet' that will instantaneously resolve all the problems of college admissions. But, particularly when combined with other initiatives to remove barriers to access, dropping ACT/SAT requirements is a proven way to enhance equity in undergraduate admissions."

ACT released a statement on the study. "Eliminating standardized testing does not address the systemic issues at the root of educational inequities in our education system. This research right-sizes expectations about test optional. Modest gains might occur, though major gains are unlikely," the statement said. "Since more data is always better, we welcome ongoing research to examine test optional practices in the post-COVID world. We’re united with advocates and critics alike in seeking to understand how test optional practices affect student success outcomes."

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