Test-Optional Admissions: A Paradigm Shift or a Temporary Solution?

During the COVID-19 pandemic when test centers were closed, many programs opened themselves up to test-optional admissions out of necessity. The intention was for test-optional admissions to be a temporary solution, but that hasn’t been the case. Dissatisfaction with GPA inflation and biases within standardized tests have motivated schools to explore different assessment techniques in their admissions process, including the move of many schools to test-optional admissions.

This week on the Holistic Success Show we welcome back Dr. Kelly Dore, Co-Founder/VP Science & Innovation at Acuity Insights and Dr. Alex MacIntosh, Senior Research Manager at Acuity Insights, to share their perspective on this paradigm shift.

Read on to get a better understanding of the events that led us here, what the different future paths look like, and where the advantages and disadvantages lie. 

What are test-optional admissions?

Test-optional admissions arose out of the massive test disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Applicants couldn’t write their tests, test centers were no longer open, and online test taking processes were tricky and less common. To manage this, schools modified their application process to accommodate for the drastic change in situation – with the assumption that post-pandemic they would return to traditional ways of assessing admissions.

This has not been the case.

As schools and programs opened back up, many schools chose to maintain their test-optional status. The reasoning behind that choice was that this ‘temporary’ test-optional measure showed inadequacies and flaws in the traditional way of assessing student applications.

Three categories of test-optional admissions

  1. Test-optional: A school does not require test scores for a particular standardized test, like SAT or ACT, but should the applicant choose to submit these scores as part of their application, the school will take them into consideration. 
  2. Test-flexible: Similar to test-optional, except that a student might need to hit a GPA threshold in order to have the option to submit or not submit standardized tests.
  3. Test-free (test-blind): Even if an applicant chooses to submit test scores, a test-free school will not consider these scores as part of their application process. 

What is the current perception of test-optional admissions?

Should applicants, if given this chance, still take the test and submit their scores? The current landscape of test-optional admissions doesn’t allow for an easy answer: a difficult question from both the applicant and the school’s perspective.

Like GPA, standardized tests are not free from bias. Additionally, test preparation can be financially and logistically impossible for many students. They may also experience a level of uncertainty about what the right choice is. Does submitting a test weigh differently for a school than not submitting one? If so, by how much? The lack of specificity and transparency in the application process leads to anxiety about how best to present oneself.

The school perspective of test-optional admissions is, unfortunately, equally uncertain, and defined by the many unknowns. If one applicant submits their GPA along with their test score and another is only submitting their GPA, do we get a fair comparison between them? 

In addition, applicants from different backgrounds might experience financial limitations that would preclude them from standardized tests and prep.  How does the school balance the inequities that exist between lower and higher income applicants, and is offering test-optional applications effectively addressing this issue? If a more-resourced student submits standardized test scores and a less-resourced student doesn’t – wouldn’t the more-resourced student effectively have a better chance of admissions?

What is GPA Inflation?

Another increasing problem is the GPA inflation, which spans different school systems, districts, public and private. These inconsistencies make it difficult to truly and effectively evaluate applicants fairly. Programs and schools are digging in to see if GPA, which is relied on so significantly, is accurate and predictive of future program success.

In addition, we’re also seeing the trend towards a more holistic approach to admissions. Specifically, contextualized holistic admissions, which doesn’t use a broad GPA threshold, but considers the applicant’s GPA or their standardized tests relative to others at their school or district. Being in the top 10% of your area, despite fluctuations in GPA across the larger applicant pool, can demonstrate excellence, while also providing opportunities to a much more diverse range of students than traditional methods.

What are the advantages of test-optional admissions?

Test-optional admissions provide many advantages, including:

  • They allow for greater applicant access. Significant biases associated with standardized tests in the resources and prep they require narrow the pathway for students to access higher education. Test-optional admissions could widen the pathways for applicants who might otherwise not have the opportunity to apply to a program.
  • High school education is currently incentivized to lead students through the application and test prep pathway, creating an environment referred to as ‘teaching for the test’. Without such a big emphasis on SATs teachers can focus on cultivating deeper knowledge.
  • Standardized tests don’t necessarily predict future success. Traditionally, standardized tests have been a major focus of the application process – however, if these tests aren’t predicting future in-program success, it’s time to re-think the process. Being in the top 10 or 20% within a given school or area can be a fairer indicator of excellence and future success.

What are the disadvantages of test-optional admissions?

Some of the disadvantages of test-optional admissions are:

  • Do test-optional admissions actually do what they claim to? If the intent behind the policy is to increase social, economic, and racial diversity students, is that working? Currently the literature isn’t conclusive. Some studies report no positive correlation to test-optional admissions and an increased acceptance of students who come from low income or minority backgrounds. Other studies report 3% to 10% increase in enrollment. This isn’t a question that’s going to be answered until the coming years, once further research has been completed.
  • In some cases there are reasonable arguments for a standardized test in the admissions process. For law programs that require a specific domain knowledge at the very beginning of the program, standardized tests can be predictive of greater future success in the program. 
  • Eliminating standardized tests does not fix all issues in an admissions process. It has to reflect a larger, holistic view of admissions where both the program and the admissions committee are working in tandem with a unified mission to produce better equipped students.

What are some alternative paths to test-optional admissions?

The core of holistic admissions is providing multiple ways of assessing applicants on vectors of academic preparedness, personal attributes, and experiences. This runs against what is provided by traditional raw GPA and standardized test scores, which include strong biases within them that preclude many students who would excel in the program, while also not offering a strong predictive value of future success.

While it is easy to point to the problems caused by traditional methods, the answers are always a moving target, bound up in the context of the program and the students they want to graduate. One alternative to traditional standardized tests involves lowering the weight and emphasis of the test themselves. Doing so reduces students’ incentives to over-invest and over-prepare on the test, instead of prepping for domain knowledge and their future.

Contextualized admissions can help understand applicants’ academic and professional preparedness within the context of their own background and experiences. Being in the top 10-20% of their school, in their community, might be a better indicator of future success within a program.

Institutions also need to evaluate their processes for reviewing an applicant’s personal attributes, qualities, and interests. Personal statements, letters of recommendations, and CVs have their own set of biases and limitations. Add to that the widespread use of ChatGPT and it’s often difficult to gauge whether a personal statement truly reflects the student, or the resources they have to bring to the assignment.

Situational judgment tests like Casper address this issue. Open response tests in particular are much more reliable in gauging a learner’s ability to interpret and effectively navigate social dilemmas with more nuance. Well structured interviews like an MMI (Multiple Mini Interviews) are also extremely valuable. These solutions create additional sources of information that help provide a more holistic and complete picture of the learner for the school. 

Advice for schools

In order to assess an applicant for admission into a program you must look at multiple data points. Whether that takes the form of a standardized test, a situational judgment test, a personal statement, or test-blind one, schools should be assessing each applicant in a holistic way that captures an applicant’s academic and non-academic skills and lived experiences.

It’s important for schools to understand that there is no one right answer. Students are diverse and bring with them needs and gifts that aren’t always visible on a single data point. A school that wants to have a better chance of achieving their mission in admissions needs to understand:

  • Resource limits. It doesn’t matter if you have all the data points, if the sheer amount of information isn’t able to be processed by the admissions team. 
  • Transparency. A big point of friction with test-optional admissions at the current moment is that it leads to more confusion about how that data point might be weighed. There has to be a shared understanding within the institution and that needs to be communicated with the applicants, as well.
  • Flexibility. Finding the “best” is a moving target. The definition changes all the time, as the world changes and more data is collected. The ability to be flexible as research and best practices change, is vital to a school’s ability to recruit and graduate the right students.

Watch the full episode to learn more about this intriguing, challenging, and exciting topic.