Test-Optional Admissions: The Next Frontier

What's next for colleges that go test optional? Andrew Palumbo offers a view.

September 30, 2019
 
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More than 200 U.S. universities have adopted test-optional admissions policies in the past 10 years -- half of which made the change in the past three years -- bringing the total to over 1,055, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Despite recent efforts by testing companies to slow the industry’s shift away from requiring high-stakes test scores, very few colleges that have adopted test-optional admissions policies appear willing to consider reversing their decision.

Long-standing, problematic correlations between test scores and family income, race and ethnicity, and gender are common reasons that universities share as motivation for eliminating test score requirements. In addition, many universities analyzing the predictive value of test scores conclude that these data points provide little to no additional, useful insight into future academic success at their institution beyond what is gained from information in students’ high school transcripts.

For these same reasons, test-optional universities still using test scores to determine merit-based scholarships should consider the next frontier of the test-optional movement: scholarships.

Over the past few years, Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s enrollment team has taken steps to assess the efficacy of our test-optional admissions policy. This policy, in conjunction with other university efforts, has enabled WPI to increase its student body while becoming more diverse. During this time, incoming high school grade point averages have strengthened, as have our retention and graduation rates.

As we assessed our progress, we recognized that our work in testing policy wasn’t done. Test scores were still being considered when we awarded merit-based aid to admitted students. Without any changes to our merit-based scholarships, the correlation to an applicant’s family income, race/ethnicity and gender that we sought to address in the admission process would still impact these awards.

The first step that we took was ceasing participation in the National Merit Scholarship Program.

This popular scholarship program is designed to use just one factor -- a single, high-stakes test score -- to initially eliminate 99 percent of students from consideration. This type of selection process reinforces the problematic correlations that test scores have with family income, race and ethnicity, and gender. Two years later, WPI completed the work of removing test scores from all aspects of our merit-based scholarships for the same reasons that we no longer require scores for admissions.

While seeking to find co-presenters for a session on breaking the ACT/SAT connection with merit-based scholarships at the National Association for College Admission Counseling annual conference, I quickly realized that WPI had not been alone. Many universities that have adopted test-optional admissions are in a situation similar to ours just a few years ago.

I share WPI’s path to eliminating test scores from our merit-based scholarships with the hopes of encouraging my colleagues at other schools that either have test-optional admission policies or are in the process of considering such a policy to keep this next frontier of the test-optional movement in mind.

Bio

Andrew Palumbo is dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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