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In 2020, the massive University of California system moved to “test-free” admissions, meaning that they no longer consider SAT or ACT scores at all during the admissions process. Many were skeptical of the UC’s move, which seemed drastic, given that most colleges had become test optional instead of test free. How could the country’s largest selective public system of higher education handle admissions without standardized test scores?
Fast-forward several years. The UC recently announced that it admitted the largest number of underrepresented racially minoritized (URM) students ever for fall 2023, despite not being able to consider race as a factor in admissions since California banned affirmative action in 1996. In a recent report, the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), an entity of the UC Academic Senate, noted that, “though not initially endorsed by BOARS, elimination of standardized tests [has] demonstrated a way in which UC can lead in advancing access and opportunity for the state’s students.”
The UC’s good news is good news for the rest of the country, which is scrambling in the wake of the Supreme Court decision rejecting race-conscious admissions in the cases brought by Students for Fair Admissions. Many campuses are looking to learn from the UC, which has had to conduct admissions without knowing an applicant’s race/ethnicity for almost three decades now. They should pay close attention to how test-free admissions has become a key part of the UC strategy.
So far, testing policy has received little attention in the post-SFFA conversation. Colleges may think that the issue is moot because so many institutions went test optional during the pandemic. Institutions like Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities not only turned to test-optional policies during the pandemic, but they have kept those policies in place. Only a handful of colleges have returned to required testing. If anything, the post-SFFA decision for institutions seems to be whether and when to make test-optional policies permanent.
More than 1,800 colleges do not require the SAT or ACT, and this fall marks the fourth cycle where test optional is the norm. Things have not fallen apart. If anything, elite institutions have fallen into a comfortable rhythm with test-optional policies. Their test score averages are going up; admit rates are lower than ever. Classes are still full of incredibly bright and talented students. Test-optional policies are associated with modest increases in racial/ethnic and economic diversity. What’s not to like?
The fact that test optional has been going strong for several years at almost 2,000 colleges shows that applications can be evaluated effectively without test scores. But why stop there, given the current crisis facing higher education?
Test optional is certainly better than required testing, but it comes with some concerns. Ambiguity exists over whether or not to submit test scores. Low-income and first-generation students who have less access to college coaching likely experience the most confusion in figuring out whether to submit. Also, because high-scoring students are more likely to submit test scores, some students may see the high test score ranges (i.e., scores for the 25th and 75th percentile) and decide not to apply, even if they have the option to not submit scores.
In contrast, as the UC has discovered, test free sends a strong, unequivocal message: we do not want to see your test scores, and we do not ascribe value to standardized tests. Test scores have been a major barrier to access for generations of students, particularly those from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Access to test-prep services is unequal, and test prep often benefits students the most when they already have high levels of academic preparation. Test-free admissions removes confusion over whether to submit scores or not.
Our research team surveyed 226 admissions professionals at selective institutions about their testing policies during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants from test-free institutions were highly enthusiastic about the move. One staff member noted that going test free allowed them to make decisions without the pressure of maintaining the institution’s U.S. News & World Report ranking, which includes test scores. Another said that admissions readers often rely on test scores as a “shortcut,” leading them to gloss over the rest of the application. They noted that without test scores, reviewers had to read applications more carefully, making them slow down and consider all parts of the application.
More than 80 institutions around the country are currently test free, ranging from those in the large UC system to STEM-focused private institutions like the California Institute of Technology. After the university moved to test-free admissions, Gary Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at University of California, Los Angeles, noted, “Some of our largest increases [in applications] came from underrepresented and high-performing students, as measured by both unweighted and weighted GPA … The increases in apps from these communities and from top performing students tells us that there were strong students each year who may have been scared off by the middle 50 percent of our test scores.” His quote speaks to how test score percentile ranges (“the middle 50 percent”) can deter even highly qualified students from applying.
As universities grapple with the SFFA decision, we urge them to take a lesson from the UC and others to keep innovating and to work relentlessly to expand access. The UC shows that test-free admissions can be done at mass scale, with promising results. Like test optional, a test-free policy is no panacea for inequality. Still, test-free admissions eliminates student confusion over whether to submit test scores, streamlines training for reviewers and sends a clear message about an institution’s values. Regardless of testing policy, institutions need major investments in staffing and recruitment, as well as need-based financial aid.
If the country’s largest selective public system can invest the resources and staffing to go test free, more institutions should join the experiment. The news from the UC is good news for the rest of the country. Test-free admissions deserves to be strongly considered.