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In response to the pandemic, many selective colleges and universities across the nation temporarily dropped testing requirements for admission. Such a drastic and quick shift in admissions practices demonstrates an unprecedented nimbleness by colleges that have largely subsisted on supposed notions of merit.

But despite its promises, test-optional admission has not been the game changer for racial and class-based equity that many hoped it would be. And, as colleges and universities prepare for a new academic year, the hourglass on test-optional admissions policies is running out.

Why hasn’t this seemingly progressive policy at selective postsecondary institutions led to meaningful and permanent change for historically excluded populations?

First, colleges that went test-optional during the pandemic did so because their bottom line was at risk. It took middle-class families threatening to opt-out of tests and higher education altogether — along with increased pressure from the reenergized civil rights movement — for universities and state legislatures to move swiftly and decisively to adopt test-optional policies.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, selective postsecondary institutions began treating historically excluded populations as a valued commodity and were eager to signal support for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students’ postsecondary access and pathways to graduation. They need not have waited so long.

Before 2020, America’s system of test-based admissions was already widely known to undercut racial equity. In fact, scholars and historically excluded communities of color have challenged it for decades. Despite these long-standing calls for change, most schools, and in particular selective institutions, had remained committed to tests.

Why hasn’t this seemingly progressive policy at selective postsecondary institutions led to meaningful and permanent change for historically excluded populations?

Revenue sensitivities — not attitudinal shifts — are why some colleges instituted test-optional policies that will sunset in a few yearstime. And seemingly progressive legislation in some states allows these shifts back to the old status quo. For example, Colorado’s new test-optional law doesn’t ban the use of tests, but colleges’ obligation to use them — in other words, public colleges can decide.

Second, having test-optional policies doesn’t mean that the most selective colleges significantly change who they admit. In fact, evidence points to little to no effect on whether going test-optional increases the representation of marginalized students at selective college campuses.

Elite colleges that went test-optional experienced a boom in applications immediately after doing so, as students of all stripes applied to their dream schools. Now these schools are awash with applications — the currency that colleges accumulate to become even more selective.

But these colleges still have a lot of information about applicants that signal class and correlate to test scores: Advanced placement and IB class participation (more readily available at wealthier and whiter schools) and high school-level academic performance and course offerings, among others.

So, while admissions counselors now seem to be relying on different data to evaluate the “fit” of applicants, counselors’ biased beliefs may persist in determining admission. After all, race- and class-based narratives of performance and deservedness are enduring and permeate college admissions practices, even as admissions counselors take 15 minutes or less to make determinations about applicants. Unexamined beliefs and bias about college readiness are particularly likely to remain within institutions that typically hire admissions personnel who are white and often alumni.

Finally, students from more privileged backgrounds continue to submit scores. Test-optional policies do not mean that admissions officers won’t consider scores, and the most advantaged students are the ones more likely to submit them.

Many insider admission websites and blogs advise students to strategically submit their scores to improve their prospects. A report from Common App shows that students from racially underrepresented communities are overall less likely to report their scores than their advantaged peers, and especially so at more selective institutions. There is likely, in effect, a chasm between the messaging and advising that middle-class and marginalized families receive.

While at first blush the omission of scores may seem like a strategic advantage for students who have markers of disadvantage, the lack of scores may raise assumptions about what those scores would have been. That would not be unlike when employers ban the question about criminal histories on applications and discrimination against Black and Latino men increases. In the absence of a check box declaring otherwise, employers are more likely to assume that individuals from these populations have criminal records.

Related: PROOF POINTS: 2021 Year in Review

The 2020 test-optional movement was not born to alleviate the need for students of color and other marginalized communities to measure up to white supremacist standards of “meritorious” test scores. It was born from institutions trying to reduce the uncertainty of enrollments during a pandemic. It was a bread-and-butter response from the risk-averse, revenue-motivated industry. And there is already evidence of some institutions reverting to test-mandatory policies now that more students are applying again.

Changes at the margins of admissions will not translate to substantive or permanent transformation in the representation and embrace of racially excluded students in selective colleges and universities — one of the most contested and exclusionary spaces in America. Instead, we need fundamental change in how colleges think about merit, deservedness and admission processes if we are to see real change. Everything else simply won’t measure up.

Awilda Rodriguez is a co-founder of the Equity Research Cooperative (EqRC). She is also an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, studying college access and choice.

Sayil Camacho is a co-founder of the Equity Research Cooperative (EqRC). She is also the principal investigator of the Test Optional Policies and Equitable Admissions research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This story about test-optional admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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