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An aerial view of the University of Texas at Austin campus.

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As more colleges revert to requiring standardized tests for admissions, it’s easy to dismiss announcements by Brown, Dartmouth and Yale as Ivy League decisions limited to a select group of colleges and students.

However, in March, the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest flagship public universities in the United States, with an enrollment of more than 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students, announced the end of test-optional policies starting for applicants for the fall 2025 semester.

This decision, perhaps more than the recent ones from Brown, Dartmouth and Yale, is the one worth paying attention to. After all, the enrollment of these three institutions combined is about 20,000 students less than UT Austin’s total enrollment. Not only does UT Austin’s decision impact many more students, it also points to the challenges that large state universities face when it comes to admitting a diverse set of academically ready students—and invites all of us to rethink the role of standardized tests.

Turning to UT Austin to understand the role of standardized tests in admissions offers a better and more meaningful entry point than the recent Ivy League decisions. Too much of our attention and fixation is on Ivy League or other highly selective colleges, which account for just a small fraction of total college enrollment. Unlike selective colleges, the overwhelming majority of colleges accept the majority of their applicants.

UT Austin, too, is competitive; in fall 2022, the university only accepted 31 percent of its undergraduate applicants—but that dwarfs the average Ivy League member acceptance rate of 5 to 7 percent.

UT Austin’s research and rationale for its decision is based on a large sample of students—and there are three major findings and implications of their verdict:

  • Students who submitted test scores for consideration in admissions were more academically prepared for their first year of college than those who opted out of submitting a score. According to the university’s data, of the 9,217 first-year students who enrolled last fall, students who submitted test scores had an estimated average GPA of 0.86 points higher during their first fall semester; they were also 55 percent less likely to have a first-semester G.P.A. below 2.0.
  • Test scores aren’t about getting in: they are about helping students stay in and graduate. What’s noteworthy about UT Austin is that it operates under a race-neutral admissions rule that automatically admits Texas students who graduated in the top 6 percent of their high school classes. Miguel Wasielewski, the university’s vice provost of admissions, said that many of those students have 4.0 grade point averages. They are literally all at the top of their high school classes. Forty-nine percent of the students applying under the auto-admit rule for fall 2024 chose to submit test scores, even though they didn’t need to. While UT Austin notes in its announcement that “standardized test scores will not change the admissions decision for automatic admits,” the university now wishes to use test scores to identify students who need support so they can appropriately place them in majors where they can succeed and connect them to student success programs. In this case, without the additional data point that test scores provide, administrators would not have this way to differentiate among students with similar GPAs and class ranks and prioritize student success.
  • The UT-Austin reversal is consequential in that other public universities across the U.S. likely see UT Austin, not the Ivies, as a peer. This, then, has the potential to encourage public universities to move beyond the talking points of the “test-optional” debate to reexamine their own testing policies and look at what their data shows. Texas’s decision, in other words, stands to reshape how standardized tests are viewed and used. Rather than viewing a test score as having the unfortunate effect of excluding or weeding out students, it will be increasingly viewed as a data point that is leveraged to promote and ensure academic readiness and success for students from all backgrounds.

All of these implications and potential shifts should also disrupt the debate around standardized tests at a time when the debate has become stale and unproductive.

Rather than the good/bad binary of standardized tests and rather than viewing the end goal of tests as being about getting into college, standardized tests can be used as a tool to more actively help students after they enroll. Scores can serve as a signal, much like a student raising her hand in class, so that students are identified as needing support and guidance in the college journey. After all, with Texas’s automatic admissions policy, a student’s chances of attending the state’s flagship university do not rest on the raw score itself. Rather, the act of preparing for the test and improving on it is a skill-building opportunity—a way to reinforce learning and enhance core math and reading skills, which are important not just for college, but for life.

Let’s not view UT Austin’s announcement—or similar announcements that may be to come—as reversals and returns to the way things once were. Instead, they reflect energizing ways to reform admissions policies to ensure we increase opportunities for students who need them the most.

Yoon Choi, Ph.D., is CEO for CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit organization that provides in-school preparation on standardized tests to help first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

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