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The Pitfall of Test-Optional Admissions

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Design by Tina Lin

We have come a long way since 1926 when the first Scholastic Aptitude Test was administered to high school students. In almost a century, the test has been changed numerous times, but its essence has always demanded an evaluation of students’ basic academic abilities. Most universities have relied upon these standardized tests to assess applicants and manipulate the demographics of their incoming student population. However, in the past few decades, some universities have started to drift from the previously universal criteria, and the current pandemic is accelerating the movement towards test-optional admissions. Arguments for test-optional policies as a long term policy solution outside of the Coronavirus pandemic have mostly good intentions with their origins in social justice, but in reality, the universities which adopt such policies are only going test-optional out of self interest.

There are obvious limiting factors which inhibit equal testing opportunities across the United States and abroad. Some students are fortunate to live in wealthier areas where the schools are more effective at preparing the students. Stubborn racial disparities have also existed for a long time, but we are only now learning how pervasive their effects are. For example, according to the Brookings Institute, black students have an average math score of 428, while Asians have an average score of 598 (Reeves & Halikias, 2017). Both of these demographics are on opposite extremes of a spectrum, which demonstrates inequity in standardized testing. People of the same race often live in the same communities, even when that cohabitation must transcend the criterion of wealth. A 2014 report by the American Communities Project and the Russell Sage Foundation based on 2010 Census data found that blacks and Hispanics with incomes over $75,000 live in neighborhoods with a higher poverty rate than whites with incomes under $40,000 (Logan, 2014). Racially divided communities have less political strength and worse access to educational resources which could prepare them for the standardized tests. To add insult to injury, wealth inequality also manifests in SAT score distributions, demonstrating a direct correlation between income and SAT scoring (Reeves & Halikias, 2017).

All of these problems with standardized testing resulted in serious consideration on the part of colleges. Academics who are accustomed to dealing with social issues now had the responsibility to eliminate social issues in their own institutions. It all started in 1970 when Bowdoin College instated a test-optional policy. By 1960, testing had become the status quo core of every university’s admissions process, so Bowdoin’s move was in stark contrast to the rest of academia. The college was one of the first to take action after worries that the SAT failed to compare students between high schools and held back qualified students with lesser opportunities. Bowdoin College was not alone for very long: other universities quickly joined, and the movement to abolish SAT testing began to pick up steam with smaller liberal arts colleges. Prestigious research universities were more reluctant to join the liberal arts colleges because they found that the “hard numbers,” like GPA and SAT scores, were good indicators of competence. Even so, this has not stopped prestigious universities like Wake Forest University from adopting the test-optional policy in 2009.

More recently, the University of Chicago decided to go test-optional for its rising class of 2023. As a highly respected university in research and the liberal arts, the switch to test-optional admissions turned heads across the country and across the world, inspiring many others to follow in its footsteps. The nation was also shocked when prominent universities like the University of California switched to test-optional admissions as an alleged response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In reality, these schools just needed an excuse to make the switch that they were going to make anyway: at a forum about college admissions last year, the UC Berkeley Provost and Chancellor stated that the research pointing to inequity in testing had convinced them that admissions based on standardized testing was unfair (Watanabe, 2019).

Unfortunately, test-optional policies may have objectives other than delivering social justice to a contemporary admissions environment. When a school goes test-optional, they can reasonably expect a 10-20% increase in applications. More applications received by the university or liberal arts college means that the university can reject more people to drive down its acceptance rate. Higher selectivity then improves prospective students’ interests in applying for the university because the student thinks that the university carries with it a prestige. Moreover, when students apply to a college without using their poor test scores, their poor test score will not be included in their school averages. In a test-mandatory system, those students likely would have been selected anyways, but their test scores would have brought down the school average, which is heavily considered by important ranking websites like US News (O’Shaughnessy). By creating a self-selecting group of students to improve the score average while simultaneously piquing interest and increasing the competition for application, going test-optional can dramatically change the social value of a university.

After all of these benefits, however, universities have a tendency to forget the social justice element of their decision. A study by Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis has found that “the policies, at the end of the day, do little to promote greater access” for students from lower income and disenfranchised minority backgrounds (Belasco, 2014). Such inefficiency could have a variety of causes, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one unfortunate fact: education in this country is inescapably inequitable. Logistically, we are forced to organize our school districting system by geography, so housing discrimination becomes a noticeable factor in educational outcome. Students from wealthier families can buy educational resources and tutoring services to prepare them for services. Even efforts which were supposed to combat racism and wealth disparity like holistic evaluation are unable to properly assess extracurricular activities because their importance is only stressed by specific demographics, and students who are more knowledgeable about the college admissions process have a leg up on those in poorer communities that do not focus on higher education as intensively. A school’s decision to go test-optional may be informed by the desire to affect the academic makeup of their student body, but any university trying to achieve diversity or socially equitable admissions processes would need to find a different method. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon us this complicated issue which will almost definitely defy conventional admissions practices and understandings for the coming admissions cycle, but as some colleges settle into test-optional policies permanently, it is important for students to be aware of all implications.



Belasco, Andrew S., et al. "The Test-Optional Movement at America's Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boon for Equity or Something Else?" Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12 June 2014, doi:10.3102/0162373714537350. Accessed 10 June 2020.

Logan, John R. Separate and Unequal in Suburbia. US2010 Project, 1 Dec. 2014., Accessed 10 June 2020.

O'Shaughnessy, Lynn. "Hate Your ACT or SAT Score? Apply to a Test-Optional College." Cappex,

colleges. Accessed 10 June 2020.

Reeves, Richard R., and Dimitrios Halikios. Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility. Brookings Institute, 1 Feb. 2017. Social Mobility Papers. Brookings Institute, inequality-and-hinder-upward-mobility/. Accessed 10 June 2020.

Watanabe, Teresa. "Drop the SAT and ACT as a Requirement for Admission, Top UC Officials Say." Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov. 2019. Los Angeles Times, story/2019-11-23/uc-officials-recommend-dropping-sat-admission-requirement. Accessed 10 June 2020.

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