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Test Optional Report - Response to Feedback

We’ve received a good deal of feedback regarding our recent report on test-optional policies, More Information, More Informed Decisions: Why Test-Optional Policies Do NOT Benefit Institutions or Students. Some of the feedback has been positive, while some has been negative.

I thought it would be helpful to address some of the negative responses that we’ve received in order to help improve understanding of the report itself and ACT’s position on this matter.

Some of the critical feedback suggested that the conclusions of this report were self-serving and defensive. We anticipated this type of reaction, of course, and that’s why we included graphs illustrating the research findings on which we based those conclusions. Some of that research was conducted by ACT, but a good deal of it was conducted by independent, external sources.

But then there were those who misinterpreted the graphs. One individual, referencing a figure on page 4 of the ACT report, essentially argued that ACT was unfairly picking on low-performing students by illustrating that students with a low ACT composite score are not terribly successful academically in college even when they have a history of high grades. (The figure shows that if you rely on grades alone to predict academic success, you are missing much of the story—and that is true for students with an ACT score of 30, 20 or even 10.)

Test-based metrics are used widely across educational, employment and organizational settings, in training programs, certification, licensure and healthcare. Yet only in college admissions do we regularly hear calls for allowing individuals a choice in determining what information should be conveyed or hidden from decision makers.

The graph in our report illustrates that two students with the exact same high school grades have very different probabilities of academic success when their ACT scores differ significantly. Of course the same argument applies to high school grades: Two students with the exact same test score have very different probabilities of academic success when one has a history of low grades in high school and another student has a history of high grades.

The overall message that the critic fails to address is as follows: Research across multiple domains has consistently demonstrated that test scores add significant value above and beyond other predictors, whether one is examining student achievement, job performance, or workplace competencies. Decision accuracy is improved when all valid indicators are considered—grades, course rigor, test scores, background experiences, opportunities, etc.

When a college makes test scores optional, it suggests that admissions officials must blindly weight those indicators in a mechanistic fashion and are unable to make holistic decisions based on the sum and consistency of various sources of evidence and the specific needs of the institution. In addition, forcing students to determine when it is in their best interests to report or suppress their test scores can lead to gaming and additional strategies which may undermine the very students who are seemingly targeted by such test optional policies.

The basic question here is whether or not test scores add value to admissions. Quite frankly, if colleges did not see any value in test scores, then they would not be test-optional; they would be test-free. Colleges would not continue to use an instrument that did not offer incremental validity in admissions, placement, retention, diagnostics, and other important functions. Colleges wouldn’t accept test scores from thousands of applicants if the information did not supplement the high school record and provide a common metric to evaluate students from different schools, who completed different courses and were graded by different faculty using different standards.

The research findings are clear: About four out of every 10 college-bound students report an “A” average in high school courses, but their actual college grades tend to run nearly a full point lower (on a 4.0 scale). ACT’s research simply repeats much of what has been found in peer-reviewed scientific research conducted by independent scholars with no affiliation to testing organizations. A good example is this report, in which the authors conclude (p. 13): “Test-optional admissions policies, as a whole, have done little to meet their manifest goals of expanding educational opportunity for low-income and minority students. However, we find evidence that test-optional policies fulfill a latent function of increasing the perceived selectivity and status of these institutions.”

Each institution has the right to establish its own admission policies to meet its own needs, and ACT respects that right. However, claims that ACT scores add little-to-no validity above high school grades are simply not borne out by the data, and claims that test optional policies result in greater campus diversity have not been substantiated in independent research.

Assessments contribute valuable information that can inform decisions in admissions, placement, hiring, accountability, certification, licensure, diagnosis, and instruction, to name just a few. Would you accept test-optional policies for certifying a pilot, licensing a pharmacist, or allowing a bank auditor access to your personal financial information? Do the colleges that adopt test-optional policies institute a similar option for course grades? Do they allow students to decide whether their grades are based only on papers, research projects, and class participation or do they require quizzes, tests, and final exams?

Most admissions professionals see the value in admissions tests and understand that, in the large majority of instances, when test scores confirm what high school grades indicate, it is confirming and reassuring, not a waste of time. Most also seek multiple sources of information and attempt to make important decisions based on all sources of data. ACT believes that test scores are a valuable source of data, and the research supports this conclusion.