The Wake Forest University commencement in the spring of 2021 will be etched in my memory for quite some time, and for two very different reasons. It was the first time that many of my administrative colleagues ventured off Zoom and returned to campus for a large event. We remained mostly masked and socially distanced, but the first round of vaccinations earlier that spring afforded a welcome reunion and reason to celebrate.
The event was also memorable for its student speaker, a soon-to-be graduate by the name of Miles Middleton. Miles, student government president, also rose to the rank of battalion commander in our ROTC program. He stood before his classmates onstage and delivered a speech that was inspiring in its honesty and humility. In front of a stadium of thousands, he recounted his arrival at Wake Forest and went so far as to announce his incoming SAT and ACT scores, which were middling at best. He spoke of his transition to college academics … the struggles, the doubters and the self-inflicted pressure. He followed by speaking to the village of support he received both at home and among the Wake Forest community, as well as the immense gratitude he felt.
As touched as I was by Miles’s story and speech, I was shocked that he revealed his low standardized test scores in such a public way. How bold, how brave and, in a world of such judgment, how unusual. For all their flaws, standardized test scores are still used to anoint the winners and relegate the losers, a social sorting and labeling system that he transcended.
Miles enrolled at Wake Forest in the fall of 2017, having applied as a test-optional student. Fortunately for Miles and 30 percent of his classmates who chose not to submit scores that year, Wake Forest was the first top-30 (according to U.S. News & World Report) national university to adopt a test-optional approach back in 2009.
Wake Forest leaders knew then what research has continued to confirm: a standardized test score is not essential to understanding a student’s intellectual curiosity, academic preparation or prospect for success. There are other aspects of evaluation that bring such attributes into clearer focus. And, there was hope that not requiring the tests could open the door wider for those who are less likely to apply to selective colleges and universities.
According to a recent university report, nonsubmitters at Wake Forest are twice as likely to be first-generation college students, Pell-eligible and/or domestic students of color; in other words, some of the most underrepresented and underserved students in higher education. Perhaps that is why we see a small discrepancy in GPAs between standardized test submitters and their test-optional classmates after the first year of Wake Forest coursework, with submitters achieving an average GPA that outpaces test-optional students by 0.13 (on a 4.0 scale).
The GPAs of nonsubmitters improve relative to their test-submitting colleagues in subsequent years. The differential in average cumulative GPA narrows to 0.12 after the sophomore year and shrinks to 0.06 by the end of the junior year. By the time the two groups reach graduation, test submitters have maintained their average cumulative GPA from their first year, while nonsubmitters have reduced the GPA differential to just 0.03. Even more impressive, a larger percentage of test-optional students persist to graduation (90 percent) than their test-submitting counterparts (87 percent).
When the university first adopted test-optional admissions, some worried that academic excellence would be compromised or that those who did not submit scores would be less capable of collegiate success. Our data show those concerns were unfounded, especially if considered over the course of one’s collegiate experience.
Many within higher education are considering the future of test-optional admission on their campuses, having pivoted to such an approach at the onset of the pandemic.
My hope is that judgment is not applied too quickly, and that nonsubmitters are given the opportunity to adjust to collegiate academics and prove their capabilities. If Wake Forest is any indication, the Miles Middletons of the class will experience their trials and tribulations. There will be moments of struggle and doubt, but those moments will largely yield to perseverance and, in the process, contribute mightily to our campus communities, learning environments and educational outcomes.