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The Unintended Consequences of Test-Optional College Admission Policies

The University of Chicago’s recent announcement that it will no longer require student applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for admission made news headlines. It also spurred discussion about test-optional admission policies, making this an ideal time to examine such policies—and the unintended consequences those policies can have on students.

The Admissions Landscape

Nearly all colleges use a holistic or comprehensive admission process, basing their decisions on a combination of many different factors and indicators. For the large majority of colleges, admission test scores are one of those key factors. 

These colleges rely on ACT/SAT scores because they provide a standardized measure of student readiness that serves as a level playing field on which to compare students from different schools, cities, states, and backgrounds.

A number of institutions, including the University of Chicago, have moved to a test-optional policy under which students are not required to—but may if they like—submit ACT/SAT scores. Many of these institutions have cited increasing access and opportunity for traditionally underserved students as a primary motivation for adopting test-optional policies.

ACT understands that the policies that govern how institutions make admission decisions are as unique as the institutions themselves, and we recognize their right to make those decisions in a manner they deem most appropriate. However, when colleges adopt a test-optional policy they have eliminated a valuable source of information from their decision process. Hundreds of studies have consistently shown that admission tests provide additional validity in predicting college success for all groups of students.

The Consequences

This is an obvious unintended negative consequence of test-optional policies but there are other consequences that are less obvious. 

One is that test-optional policies introduce a new level of strategy into the admission process: students must determine whether it is in their best interest to submit test scores or withhold them. 

Colleges with test-optional policies seem to assume that students and their parents fully understand the dynamics of this decision. However, there is relatively little guidance available on the issue. 

Data continue to suggest that the large majority—approximately 80 percent—of students admitted to test-optional colleges actually do submit ACT/SAT scores when they apply for admission. Overall, only about 1 percent of the nation’s first-year college students enroll in four-year institutions without submitting test scores. 

Test-optional colleges have avoided reporting basic data that could make the process more transparent and easier to navigate. Colleges regularly report the high school GPA, class rank, demographic background, rigor of coursework, and national scholarships attained by their applicants and enrollees. 

Test-optional colleges could easily break down these same data by whether or not applicants submitted admission test scores. Such information would help high school students and families compare their profiles to these two applicant groups.

The absence of these basic data can create an uneven playing field for students, especially those from traditionally underserved populations who are more likely to lack insights into institutional admission processes.

Test-optional policies also create two admission tracks: one for students who submit test scores and another for those who don’t. Colleges can certainly make informed decisions without test scores, but when they lack test scores they must place increased reliance on other available academic measures such as high school grades, rigor of coursework, and quality of high school attended. 

It’s important to examine the potential impact on students when these factors gain added importance without a standardized metric of academic readiness against which to balance them. There is of course no perfect measure of academic success, and while the limitations of test scores have been appropriately reported, much less attention has been paid to the limitations of these other factors when used exclusively to predict future academic performance.

Indicators of high school quality can include factors such as the percent of graduates who enroll in college, gain admission to highly selective colleges, complete AP courses, or are recognized as national scholarship recipients. Individual students, however, have no influence or control over these metrics. 

It is difficult to see how placing greater weight on indicators of, say, school quality or rigor of coursework helps underserved populations or increases fairness when these factors have been shown to relate largely to where a student’s family lives.

As mentioned earlier, high school grades alone have been shown to be the second-best predictor of college grades: second to the combination of high school grades and test scores. When test scores are absent, high school grades take on increased importance—in many instances, determinative importance. 

The fact that grades are inflated more today than in the past has been widely reported. On average, high school grade point averages (HSGPA) are about 0.60 points higher than first-year college grade point averages (FGPA) for the same students. 

Grades differ across teachers, courses, and subjects within the same school let alone across different schools, cities, and states. Some teachers grade more leniently, others more harshly, and research shows that grades given in math and science are often far lower than grades in other fields.

Of greater concern is the consequence for individual students when grades are relied upon as the sole or primary factor used to judge achievement or predict future success.

Today, nearly 40 percent of students taking an admission test have an A average in high school, and yet a sizable number of these students do not meet college readiness benchmarks on either the ACT or the SAT. And they perform more poorly when they go to college.

The Data

To illustrate how such differences in high school grades can impact individual students, we examined a sample of schools in a large state that had administered the ACT to all juniors for several years. The table below showcases seven schools in the state with a large number of 2017 ACT test takers.

Students with a HSGPA of 4.0 (A) or higher in one large state

You can see large differences in the average ACT scores for students with an identical “A” average in high school courses: ACT Composite scores range from a high of 30.2 to a low of 23.0 in these schools. In addition, the third column shows that nearly one in four students at school C are likely to have an A average compared to only 2% in schools D and G.

Those results were replicated in a second large state, showing even larger differences when comparing schools across the state. 

These data suggest that students from some schools would benefit while those from other schools would be disadvantaged if grades were given the greatest weight in admission decisions.

Most important of all, while many institutions cite increasing access and opportunity for traditionally underserved students as a primary motivation for adopting test-optional policies, the data on the impact of those policies seems to indicate that they don’t always produce the expected results. 

A 2015 study by Belasco, Rosinger, and Hearn at the University of Georgia found that, on average, while institutions with test-optional policies received increased numbers of applications, they also enrolled a lower proportion of Pell Grant recipients and traditionally underrepresented minorities than did institutions that were not test optional. 

The researchers also found that, on average and after controlling for characteristics that would naturally vary with time, test-optional policies did not increase the proportions of low-income or minority students enrolling at the colleges that adopted the policies.

With the unintended consequences arising from test-optional policies, then, the result is greater subjectivity and less transparency in college admission at test-optional institutions, and greater confusion and potential inequity for applicants, instead of the greater fairness and access to a college education that the institutions so often claim as the rationale for their policies.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.