Will Test Optional Become the ‘New Normal’?

As more colleges embrace the practice for a few years—or permanently—the debate is changing.

January 24, 2022
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The Iowa Board of Regents this month voted to become test optional, permanently. That means Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa will no longer require the SAT or ACT for admissions.

A report prepared for the regents said, “Currently, of UNI’s 10 peer institutions, six have permanently gone test optional, three are still in a pilot of the policy and just one continues to require ACT or SAT. Many Big 10 and Big 12 institutions also have pilot test optional policies, but three in the Big 10 and at least three in the Big 12 have made a permanent change to test optional admissions while the rest are continuing a pilot of the policy for additional years while they assess.”

“Our findings continued to indicate that the tests do have some value on predicting first year GPA [grade point average], but ultimately had a limited relationship to the likelihood of graduation,” Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon said at the regents’ meeting.

Boon said the “widespread” shift to test-optional policies created a sense of urgency for Iowa to make a change.

In December, Harvard University extended its test-optional period through the Class of 2030 (the current admissions cycle is for the class of 2026).

“The current admissions cycle … is the second cycle that students have been able to apply to Harvard without requiring standardized testing, as many students continue to have limited access to testing sites due to COVID-19. Consistent with Harvard’s whole-person admissions process, standardized tests are one factor among many considered. Accomplishments in and out of the classroom during the high school years—including extracurricular activities, community involvement, employment, and family responsibilities—are considered as part of the admissions process. Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process. Applicants will be considered on the basis of what they have presented, and students are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future,” Harvard said in explaining its decision.

The Harvard decision attracted much attention. After all, Harvard is Harvard. And its stance makes it easier for other highly competitive colleges to follow the same path.

But the dozens of decisions like Iowa’s may have more impact. Even considering the huge applicant pool Harvard gets, many more students are trying each year to get into the Iowas of the nation.

Statewide decisions for public colleges are particularly important because many students apply only to public colleges in their home state.

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Another fact about Iowa: Iowa City is home to the ACT, which sponsors the test by the same name that is taken by hundreds of thousands of students—even last year amid the pandemic.

‘It’s Here to Stay’

Janet Godwin, CEO of ACT, said that while she prefers that colleges require tests, “I’m not surprised by the test-optional movement. It’s the new normal. It’s here to stay.”

She said whether to submit test scores “is a personal choice.” Godwin added that students and their families know “how they should best present themselves.”

At the same time, she called for colleges to have “more nuanced discussions” about test-optional policies.

For instance, ACT has studied the relationship between grades and ACT scores. (Many critics of standardized testing say tests provide little to college admissions officers that they couldn’t obtain from grades.) ACT has found a correlation between grades and ACT scores for 75 percent of students, but not for the remaining 25 percent of students. Some of the 25 percent do better in college and some worse, based on their ACT scores.

Godwin said that some students will miss out, perhaps, on college admittance because they don’t submit scores.

She also said that she talks with college admissions officers all the time, and they are scared of grade inflation being hidden when students do not submit scores.

For those reasons, Godwin said, she opposed test-blind policies, under which the ACT and SAT are not looked at, even if a student wants to submit them.

The College Board is the other organization focused on standardized tests, in its case the SAT.

Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board’s vice president of college readiness assessments, issued this statement in response to questions. While she didn’t use the phrase “new normal,” she also talked about student choices around submitting scores.

“College Board and the SAT were founded to increase access to college and that remains our core mission. When nearly every college went test optional during the pandemic, millions of students still took the SAT. That trend has continued with the high school class of 2022. Most students want to take the SAT, find out how they did, and then decide if they want to submit their scores to colleges. When surveyed, 83 percent of students said they want the option to submit test scores to colleges. This finding remains consistent whether or not students have taken the SAT and across race/ethnicity and parents’ level of education.”

She added, “Some students may decide their application is stronger without test scores, while others will benefit from sending them, including the hundreds of thousands of rural, first-generation and underrepresented students whose SAT scores strengthen their college applications. Evidence shows that when colleges consider SAT scores in the context of where students live and go to school, the SAT helps increase diversity. As we emerge from the pandemic, the SAT will remain one of the most accessible and affordable ways for students to distinguish themselves. Preserving a student’s choice to submit scores is important.”

States and Universities Embracing Test Optional

Beyond individual colleges and universities that are going test optional, states are making the move.

Beyond Iowa, there is significant movement in the following states:

  • In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed legislation in May to make all the state’s public colleges and universities test optional in admissions. The bill ended, permanently, a state requirement that all applicants submit ACT or SAT scores.
  • In Illinois, Governor J. B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed legislation to require all public colleges and universities in the state to offer test-optional admissions.
  • In Montana, the board of the Montana University System voted to make SAT and ACT scores optional, permanently—except ACT scores will be required for honors scholarships.
  • In Washington State, all the public four-year colleges decided to move to test optional.

California may be the ultimate prize for the test-optional movement.

In May, the University of California system agreed to make all campuses test blind (meaning SAT and ACT scores will not be looked at in making admissions decisions).

And as for the California State University system (the largest four-year system in the country), Chancellor Joseph I. Castro supports the elimination of a testing requirement, and the board is expected to vote on a recommendation to do so in March.

Counting individual and private colleges, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) said that nearly 80 percent of four-year colleges will not require the SAT or ACT for admissions this year. (That includes colleges that have simply extended test optional for another year, as well as those that have made permanent decisions.)

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, said, “From our perspective, ACT/SAT-optional policies continue to settle in as the new normal in undergraduate admissions … for higher education institutions.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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