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How Test-Optional Admissions Make Higher Education More Equitable

  • 5 Min Read

Until recently, standardized testing has been common practice for students applying to postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

There are a handful of institutions that have always been test free, but for the most part, taking the SAT or ACT has been part and parcel of becoming a college student.

However, since many schools pivoted to remote or blended learning in 2020, there has been a rise in making standardized testing optional when applying.

Research released by FairTest shows that 80% of all U.S. colleges had test-optional admissions for applicants in the 2022-23 academic year. For the 2023-24 academic year, at least 60% of U.S. colleges have committed to making their admissions test optional and that number is expected to grow.

While this means many students will have one less step to take when applying to college, this change can have an even larger impact on applicants from lower-income households or less affluent neighborhoods.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the socioeconomic inequities of admissions testing and how its removal can make higher education more accessible.

The History of Admissions Testing

The SAT is a paid, standardized test introduced in 1926. Multiple-choice questions are used to test students on what they’ve learned in school to show colleges that they’re ready for postsecondary education.

Similar to its predecessor, the ACT is a paid, standardized test. Created in 1959 by Dr. Everett Lindquist, this test was meant to rival the SAT. Lindquist claimed the SAT measured aptitude, whereas the ACT aimed to measure a learner’s high school competencies.

While the SAT and ACT are meant to be a positive influence on a student’s application, access to these tests and preparation for them has been growing increasingly inequitable.

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A Barrier to Diversity

While these tests are available for everyone to take, the ability to afford the time and resources to prepare for them is not.

Students from higher-income families or more affluent neighborhoods and schools have better support—both monetary and academic—when it comes to preparing for admissions tests.

This leaves many students of color—those who tend to make up populations in lower-income neighborhoods and attend schools in districts with less funding—feeling the impact of socioeconomic inequality and achieving lower grades on these tests.

College Board, the company that prepares the SAT, has said for many years that test prep or coaching for the SAT—which is often expensive—bears no impact on student outcomes.

In 2016, College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free practice for the SAT. Unsurprisingly, test scores rose for students across the board. However, the College Board pointed to a redesign of the SAT, making it better aimed to tackle what students are learning in high school, as the answer to their change of heart on coaching.

Despite the free coaching, test results still differ between students of different races.

Research done by Brookings on the math portion of the 2020 SAT highlights the difference in results by race. Whereas more than half of white and 80% of Asian test takers hit the mark for college readiness in the math section, under 25% of Black students and 30% of Hispanic or Latino students could say the same.

Since 2020, many U.S. colleges have taken a step back and begun to rethink the role standardized testing plays in admissions.

Advantages of Test-Optional Admissions

Not requiring admissions tests opens the door for more students who may have been judged on lower scores because of disadvantaged situations.

This trend has pushed colleges to take a look at their admissions processes and consider other aspects of an application instead, some of which may be more accurate.

Research done in Iowa showed that ACT test scores had little impact on graduation rates. Instead, high school GPA was a better indicator of student success in college.

At Vassar College, standardized tests were found to cause institutions to overlook talented applicants with more diverse backgrounds. In 2021, Vassar saw 25% more applicants, including more low-income and first-generation students, which they attributed in part to having test-optional admissions.

Merit Scholarships

When it comes to awarding scholarships based on merit, SAT or ACT scores are often taken into account. With the shift to admissions testing becoming optional, many schools are changing eligibility for merit scholarships:

  • Arizona State University has a New American University Scholarship based on high school GPA and core competencies.

  • Indiana University Bloomington will evaluate students based on high school GPA, performance on admissions-required coursework and abilities shown in advanced courses.

  • At Boston University, merit scholarships can be awarded based on students being in the top 5% of their class, as well as showing participation in extracurriculars that support their school and community.

While removing the barrier of standardized testing does provide hope for a more equitable admissions experience, the root of the issue shouldn’t be forgotten.

Going Beyond Test-Optional Admissions

As mentioned, one of the core problems with standardized testing is that not all students have equal access to prepare and succeed. These issues often stem from the fact that students from lower-income households or whose schools are in less affluent neighborhoods have less support.

The growing popularity of test-optional admissions will help create a more equal playing field for all applicants. But the root cause, socioeconomic inequities in access to quality education, still remains.

Even with the advantages test-optional admissions present, it’s important to remember that some students still won’t have the same level of access to advanced coursework or college prep as some of their peers. If students are now being evaluated on GPA and high school performance, it still stands to reason that students with more monetary and academic support will have a better chance of admission.

While one barrier to a more equitable admissions process may have become smaller, there are still many more that need to be broken down before admissions can be truly equal.

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