Test Optional Admissions: The Benefits and Considerations

Earlier this year, Columbia University and the College of William & Mary announced that they will be moving to test-optional admissions policies indefinitely. They represent two of the almost 2,000 colleges and universities in the United States that now offer test optional admissions, which has become a growing trend in college admissions. Test optional simply means that programs allow prospective students to opt out of submitting academic scores like SATs – however the specific policy will differ from school to school. 

According to the latest numbers from FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a growing number of colleges and universities – now exceeding 1,900 schools – are adopting ACT/SAT-optional, test-blind, or score-free admission procedures for the upcoming 2023/24 school year. This number accounts for 83% of U.S. based colleges offering four year programs. 

The shift to test optional admissions has been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • March 2020, there was a nationwide cancellation of SAT testing
  • By December 2021, the number of four-year universities and colleges with test-optional policies nearly doubled from 713 to 1,350 
  • Going into the summer of 2023, over 1,800 schools in the United States accept test-optional applications

The goal of test-optional admission is to open the doors to students who are otherwise challenged by standardized academic tests. This gives more people the opportunity to apply, but more applications means more pressure on registrar offices who need to read and assess them.

Advantages of going test optional

The most common means of assessment for higher education has historically been the SAT. The SAT has been the gold standard and the most required test for undergraduate admissions since it was created, a century ago. Since its creation in the 1920s, the SAT has undergone many changes, however, the last time the SAT was updated was almost 20 years ago. It is becoming increasingly criticized as an unhelpful test that doesn’t accurately assess students and is a barrier to admissions, with some experts calling for its removal from admissions requirements. 

Higher education institutions are acknowledging the limitations of knowledge-based standardized tests such as the SAT, and are seeking alternate methods of evaluation. This re-evaluation is ideally meant to level the playing field amongst applicants, and to support those who are more marginalized – where the test has demonstrated significant bias against these applicants. These groups include: 

  • Underrepresented populations in higher education
  • Low-income families
  • Multicultural and multilingual families

As well as those with:

  • Learning disabilities 
  • Neurodiversities

Test-optional admission is one way schools are attempting to support students who are historically disadvantaged when it comes to knowledge-based standardized tests – and while it might be the path of least resistance, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to gather a holistic view of an applicant.

Challenges of test-optional admissions

While the shift to test-optional admissions is a positive step forward in rethinking how admissions are considered, it is not a perfect solution. 

  • Administrative pressure: While widening the net of viable candidates is an intended consequence of test-optional admissions, the increased pressure on admissions offices is not. A greater pool of candidates and a less standardized method of evaluating them means more time and more money spent by admissions offices to manage the influx and assessment of applications. A methodical, streamlined process must be a part of the plan to move away from the reliance on standardized testing. 
  • Systemic issues: Test-optional admissions alone cannot resolve systemic inequality that exists in higher education. These systemic issues have heavily relied on standardized test scores up until now. For example: the distribution of academic scholarships are burdened by systemic barriers – they are still determined by standardized test performance and grades. Even with test optional policies you’ll still have inequalities in the allocation of scholarships. Unless there is a real and dynamic shift in admissions processes, there will remain an unfair advantage for students with high GPA and test scores to gain entry and access to post secondary education. 
  • Policy confusion: While programs or institutions may choose to go “test optional”, there’s been confusion around whether these policies just add another layer of confusion for students and advisors, who may find it unclear whether adding or omitting test scores will hurt an application. This lack of transparency and the implications of their decision to omit their scores may vary school to school. Some advisors may be concerned that if students do not submit a score it could be interpreted as having performed poorly.
  • Minimizing the information on applicants: While knowledge-based assessments have demonstrated limitations, they do provide an additional data point on the learner. If schools move to test-optional it is possible they are simply putting weight on another metric (GPA), which can have similar implications as well. Schools should look for opportunities to add information about applicants in a resource-manageable way to get a stronger and more well-rounded understanding of the student’s potential. 

Moving to holistic admissions

Schools that have chosen to pursue a test optional admissions process will be overwhelmed with the number of admissions that they receive. However, just because a program is test optional doesn’t mean that it’s engaging in a fair and equitable admissions process. 

This is where holistic admissions comes in. A commitment to holistic admissions isn’t the simplest path to take – but it’s the one that offers a more complete view of each applicant – and it’s certainly the path forward in higher education.

By looking at the whole person, and acknowledging the value both academic and soft skills bring to the table, colleges and universities will be broadening the types of students it admits into their program. One way they can do this is by evaluating an applicant’s soft skills – such as, communication, collaboration, empathy, teamwork – ƒin a valid and reliable way. While many programs look at personal statements and other non-academic documents in order to implement holistic review, replacing or complementing those with a soft skills assessment will support a program’s existing holistic review process – while offering insight that these other requirements can’t provide.

How does holistic review work?

When examining the difficulties admissions offices encounter, the main issue lies in determining the appropriate framework for making admissions decisions in the absence of standardized tests. Ideally, this framework should encompass both academic and non-academic abilities (such as their soft skills). 

Admissions offices already have methods in place to assess an applicant’s academic capability, such as evaluating their GPA, but that is only one part of who the student is and how they will succeed. However, the existing sources for evaluating non-academic skills, like personal statements and reference letters, are not accurate measures of future performance, and require significant time to review. Instead, it’s critical that programs institute a reliable measure of soft skills, like empathy, collaboration, and resilience. 

Casper is a soft skills assessment that focuses on some of the key non-academic attributes programs should include in a holistic process. It’s backed by nearly two decades of research, and is designed to effectively evaluate how applicants will respond in different situations based on their lived experiences and values. Casper delivers a single score to help schools quickly and easily identify applicants that bring a strong set of soft skills. By combining the Casper score with GPA, schools have a defensible way to make sound admissions decisions.

Casper was designed by Drs. Kelly Dore and Harold Reiter at McMaster University, to help the university’s medical school, Michael G.cDeGroote School of Medicine, review its applicants’ soft skills in a defensible way. However, Casper isn’t just for medical schools – today, it has been adapted and used across undergraduate and graduate medicine, allied health, dentistry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant, veterinary sciences, teacher’s education, and business education. 

How does Casper work?

Casper is an online virtual, proctored assessment that applicants complete from the comfort of their home. Applicants are provided with video- and text-based scenarios, and respond to a set of questions for each scenario within the allotted time using typed or video-recorded responses. 

Responses are then reviewed by Casper raters, a diverse group of people who undergo extensive training on Casper and what it measures, as well as implicit bias training. Each applicant is rated by multiple independent raters (with a different rater for each scenario) so that the final aggregate score received by the program reflects diverse perspectives on the applicant’s performance. 

Casper measures for a variety of soft skills, including: communication, empathy, problem-solving, resilience, ethics, and teamwork.

Relieve administrative pressure and overcome systemic issues in admissions processes 

Casper helps take the pressure off admissions offices by providing an evidence-based measure of an applicant’s soft skills to be used in combination with academic metrics like GPA. It has proven to support program’s equity in admissions by reducing demographic differences, when compared to other standardized tests such as the MCAT and GRE. Both academic literature and program-specific case studies consistently highlight the meaningful and actionable connections between Casper and selection outcomes, interview performance, and performance within programs. As Casper and GPA predict for different outcomes, using them in combination at admissions can give programs a holistic picture of success.

Casper contributes to a program’s holistic review of students that is backed by two decades of research, including research that suggests it’s a reliable predictor of future performance. This gives admissions teams the information they need at their fingertips without having to take on the monumental task of individually assessing and analyzing nuanced scoring. Casper helps facilitate a greater pool of well-rounded applicants who have the professional skills they need to succeed in school and in their careers. 

Knowledge-based standardized testing has been a century’s long source of data on which schools have based admission. They focus on knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge within the confines of a singular test. They have value. But they benefit from nuance.  Casper adds that nuance, adding context and insight that is impossible to get from a standardized test alone. Casper puts the power in the hands of admissions offices to easily see beyond the numbers, setting your students apart when they walk out as ambassadors of a school that cares to get to know them.