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We may not yet know what college admissions will look like after the pandemic, but the influence of the SAT and the ACT — once critical requirements in a student’s college application process — is rapidly eroding before our eyes.
And that’s something to celebrate.
The College Board and ACT will still continue to offer these tests and to contend that test scores can provide value to admissions offices. But the power that these tests and the companies that profit from them once held in the college admissions landscape is forever diminished.
With hundreds of thousands of students unable to safely sit for the proctored tests during the pandemic, universities were forced to recognize that they do not need test scores to make good decisions.
Last spring, hundreds of universities adopted temporary, permanent or multiyear pilot programs that eliminated their test score requirements. Many are now announcing extensions of those policies for the high school class of 2022.
Many seniors graduating in 2021 have not been able to take the SAT or ACT due to pandemic-related testing cancelations and space issues. More than two-thirds of colleges — including all the Ivy League universities and almost all public flagships — will make their admissions decisions for this year’s class without a test score for a significant portion of their applicant pool. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, or WPI, less than half of our applicants submitted a test score this year — compared with 84 percent last year.
Standardized test scores have a problematic correlation with family income, gender and race and ethnicity. At a time when universities across the U.S. have made commitments to root out structural racism and inequitable practices, the consideration of SAT and ACT scores should top the list of practices targeted for elimination.
Test scores are a lazy sorting mechanism. The mistaken assumption has been made that, since most students take these tests, they’re a good way to compare the academic abilities of applicants. In reality, that could not be further from the truth. It’s impossible to tell the difference between a 1450 SAT score that was earned by a first-generation student who took the test cold without practicing and a 1450 received by a wealthy student who had expensive test preparation and tutoring that increased his score by 200 points.
In March, faculty at WPI overwhelmingly adopted an eight-year test-blind pilot, transitioning from 13 years of test-optional admissions to a process that will not consider test scores for admission or financial aid. Importantly, this vote eliminated the antiquated use of SAT and ACT test scores because faculty recognize that they are poor predictors of college success, and they introduce and reinforce inequities that our university is committed to eliminating.
It’s impossible to tell the difference between a 1450 SAT score that was earned by a first-generation student who took the test cold without practicing and a 1450 received by a wealthy student who had expensive test preparation and tutoring.
WPI’s student data since adopting the test-optional admissions policy in 2007 shows no significant difference between test score submitters and non-submitters in retention or graduation rates — two of the most important student success metrics in higher education. If the test scores aren’t needed to make good admissions decisions but do reinforce inequality, why would universities continue to include them — even optionally — within their selection processes?
In addition to student success rates, it’s just as important to note how our student body has evolved since the adoption of test-optional admissions.
We have seen significant enrollment increases in the number of women and students of color who are historically underrepresented in STEM during this time; the number of women has increased from 771 to 1,948 (from 26 to 40 percent of the student body) and of underrepresented students of color has increased from 226 to 646 (from 8 to 13 percent).
By adopting a test-blind admissions policy, we further remove barriers to application and admission by eliminating additional costs and the anxiety around test scores. It is important that we continue to identify and address such barriers because studies have proven that increasing the diversity of a student body improves educational outcomes for all students.
A year ago — before the pandemic — there was just one selective test-blind college. With its recent faculty vote, WPI became the 70th university, according to Fairtest.org, to adopt a temporary, pilot or permanent test-blind admissions policy.
Test-blind schools will now serve roughly 10 percent of all four-year undergraduates in the U.S. This is just the beginning. A March 2021 ACT study found that more than 20 percent of universities with test-optional policies prior to Covid and 10 percent of those who waived score requirements during Covid are likely to adopt test-blind policies in the next three to five years. Perhaps most telling was the response from the small number of schools still requiring test scores during the pandemic: About 20 percent reported that they are likely to eliminate consideration of SAT and ACT scores.
The pandemic’s impact on testing and test policy has created an opportunity for universities across the country to have honest and necessary discussions on what these tests measure, what they don’t, the limited value they provide admissions counselors and the inequities they reinforce in admissions and financial aid processes.
If universities care about all students, they must better align admissions processes with their distinctive missions, values and goals while also eliminating the inequities that standardized test scores reinforce. We owe it to all of our students and our broader community to evolve beyond the SAT and ACT.
Higher education moves slowly, and these changes won’t be made overnight, but the discussions can be started today.
Andrew Palumbo is dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
This story about test-blind admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.