The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools across the world highlighted the inequities in college admissions and need for urgent reform. Standardized testing requirements like the SAT and ACT, which have been used to predict aptitude and college readiness, are a dated predictor of success. These requirements disadvantage and discourage low-income and minority students. Thus, college admissions offices should de-emphasize their importance in application review.
Entrance exams have historically been used to quantify intelligence, determine who is apt to attend university, and even serve in the military. Originally, test scores provided a better metric for predicting academic success than grades, since they control for grade inflation and different grading standards.” But the reality is that these tests are biased towards White and Asian Americans, especially ones from higher socioeconomic classes.
Testing requirements worsen racial disparities, which contribute to the achievement gap and cycle of poverty. Many lower-income students can’t afford practice tests, private tutoring, and professional college counseling. By eliminating these tests as an application requirement, admissions officers can focus on evaluating students holistically. Thus, there is less emphasis on a student’s ability to be coached or gain advantages due to socioeconomic status. If universities implement these changes, more students can gain access to higher education, which will help them obtain well-paying jobs, maintain economic stability, and contribute meaningfully to society.
When the pandemic began, nearly 45% of private nonprofit and public universities allowed students to apply without submitting SAT or ACT scores; others refused to look at applicants’ test scores altogether. As of October 2020, almost 2/3 of colleges used a test-optional or test-blind policy. Schools that adopted test-optional policies became slightly more selective than those who chose to maintain their testing requirements. However, these policies allowed a more diverse pool of students to apply. Schools like Cornell received over 20,000 more applications in 2020 after dropping their testing requirement, since students who might have ‘self-rejected’ after receiving low scores began to submit their applications too. While the surge in applications placed a strain on Cornell’s admissions office, they ultimately enrolled a class with over 50% more first-generation college students than the previous year. The experiment demonstrated how the removal of testing barriers can provide opportunities for more students.
Since the pandemic, schools like the those in the University of California system have experimented with test-optional policies, as well as creating a test specific to the UC system. The long-term effects of these changes is unclear; however, UC has recommended investing more in the quality of K-12 education, expanding access to advanced courses, and increasing the size of the admissions team to review each application more thoroughly. These policy recommendations have enabled UC to emerge as a leader in the movement to reform college admissions.
Besides changing their testing policies, schools like UC established a “guarantee” program, where students who meet certain criteria are promised admission before the regular admissions cycle. This approach allows UC to create a more diverse student body; however, it has made their admissions process more competitive. Students who are not admitted through the guarantee program must compete for a smaller number of spots. With limited money and capacity, colleges can’t increase the number of spots in each incoming class. So, schools who do eliminate their testing requirement must plan for how they will evaluate students and strive towards equity.
Opponents of test-optional admissions argue that differences in high school grades and courses are to blame for admissions disparities. They believe that if testing requirements were suspended, many low-income and first-generation students wouldn’t be considered for top universities at all. Though higher-income students often have more access to advanced courses, minimizing each applicant to a test score is hardly a solution. To account for this opposition, many universities have begun to implement “holistic review”, or considering multiple, intersecting factors that define applicants. By evaluating more than academic performance, universities weigh students’ backgrounds and the intangible qualities they might bring to their community. Holistic admissions and eliminating testing requirements are not synonymous, but each provides students with more opportunities to demonstrate their qualifications.
Despite the progress that has already been made, the future of testing requirements is uncertain. If higher education remains the main avenue for students to receive a well-paying job and future opportunities, we must fight to make college admissions more equitable for students from all backgrounds.
Rory Smith (PPS ‘24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.