Although many postsecondary students in the United States attend local or regional nonselective institutions, the selective-college admissions process nevertheless captures the imagination of the media and policymakers year in and year out. One frequently returning story has centered on the growing number of institutions changing their policies on the use of standardized testing in admissions. These reforms—typically grouped together under the label “test optional”—are touted as fostering an increase in campus racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity.

More than 1,000 institutions, mostly liberal-arts colleges, have jumped on the test-optional bandwagon over the past five decades. Recent years have seen an acceleration of the trend—and an expansion to a much broader group of colleges and universities, including a small handful of large public institutions (such as the University of Delaware) and the elite, private University of Chicago. The most closely watched case is the University of California system, whose board of regents is set to decide this year whether or not to make the submission of SAT or ACT scores optional for applicants.

With some 226,000 undergraduates statewide, the University of California could become the largest public university system to eliminate or de-emphasize standardized tests in admissions. That possibility prompts a closer look at test-optional reform and how it could affect the nation’s state-university systems.

What Is “Test Optional”?

Admissions policies that downplay or do away with standardized test scores come in several flavors. The simplest and purest is a “test-blind” policy, under which admissions officers do not consider applicants’ test scores under any circumstances. Virtually no U.S. institutions are test blind. (While Hampshire College in Massachusetts has a published test-blind policy, that institution will look at students’ submitted International Baccalaureate, AP, and SAT Subject Test scores, just not their ACT and SAT I scores.)

The most common form of test-optional policy encourages applicants to submit their college-entrance examination (usually ACT or SAT) scores only if they believe that so doing will help their chances of admission.

“Test-flexible” policies are another, less common variation, generally meaning that applicants are not required to submit ACT or SAT scores but that they are required to submit some sort of standardized-testing results—often AP, IB, or SAT Subject Test scores.

In the case of the University of California, media accounts have reported that the regents are considering either a truly test-optional policy or an approach that requires students to submit scores from the state’s Smarter Balanced high-school accountability tests.

Actress Lori Loughlin and husband, Mossimo Giannulli, leave court in Boston, where they are fighting charges related to helping their child get into USC.
Actress Lori Loughlin and husband, Mossimo Giannulli, leave court in Boston, where they are fighting charges related to helping their child get into USC.

Why Avoid Standardized Tests?

Colleges and universities that drop the SAT and ACT from their admissions requirements generally say they do so because they view the exams as biased against disadvantaged minority and low-income students or they consider high-school GPA to be at least as predictive of college success, if not more so.

On the question of bias, test-optional proponents often cite several kinds of evidence, including the undeniably racist early history of standardized intelligence measurement; the gaps that persist between the average scores of students of different races, ethnicities, or socioeconomic backgrounds; and the ability of wealthy parents to secure advantages for their children, such as private “test-prep” courses.

While the worst examples of past, misguided efforts to measure human intelligence and aptitude are indefensible, today’s standardized admissions tests are developed explicitly to measure the mastery of academic content that students are expected to learn in school—not IQ or general intelligence or some other notion of aptitude. Both the ACT and SAT are aligned with state content standards in mathematics and English language arts—which is one reason some states use college-entrance exams as their state accountability test in place of longer, state-specific assessments.

Citing the existence of score gaps as evidence of test bias is particularly puzzling. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and many other standardized tests consistently show, as do countless research studies, that Asian and white students, on average, outperform their black and Hispanic counterparts and that wealth and socioeconomic status confer a compounding advantage to academic performance and life outcomes. How, then, could one expect a standardized measurement at the end of high school not to reflect the unfortunate educational inequities inherent in American society?

If high-priced test prep or coaching is exacerbating these score gaps, that is a valid case against the SAT and ACT. As the Varsity Blues bribery scandal demonstrates, some parents will pay or do almost anything to secure an admissions advantage for their children. Yet evidence fails to show that the ecosystem of test-prep providers, consultants, and coaches does much more than profit from parental anxiety. Moreover, both major testing companies that oversee the ACT and SAT have introduced free test-preparation materials in an attempt to offset any advantage of test prep, although the efficacy of such offerings is unknown. Finally, given the amount of parental anxiety over the elite selective-admissions process, it’s likely that the widespread adoption of test-flexible and -optional policies would simply cause a shift in emphasis to test prep for any new required tests (IB, AP, Smarter Balanced) and to pricey tutoring for boosting high-school GPA.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions is that high-school grades offer similar value in predicting college success. While both major testing programs have produced decades of research showing a small overall advantage when institutions use both a standardized test and GPA, the relative predictive power of tests varies across institutions. Indeed, both ACT and the College Board work confidentially with colleges and universities to conduct local validity studies meant to shed light on the utility of testing relative to GPA and how the different sources of data should be weighted in support of decision making. Larger institutions that conduct their own such studies often report that GPA alone is a sufficient predictor. Yet here a caveat is in order: a small but growing body of evidence finds that high-school grades are “inflating” over time, and that they are rising at a faster rate for affluent, advantaged students. It’s possible that standardized tests act as a partial check on grade inflation; if so, then reducing or eliminating their role in college admissions could worsen the problem. What’s more, the predictive value of the GPA could diminish if too many institutions stop using test scores.

Test Optional in State Universities

While most state systems comprise colleges and universities of varying levels of selectivity, all of their individual institutions must review a large number of applicant files compared to small, private colleges. For example, the University of California system in 2018 reviewed files from over 180,000 applicants to fill about 46,000 seats. Conducting an in-depth, “holistic” review of every single application would not be feasible, so large institutions often prescreen students based on factors such as test scores and GPA to winnow down the pool. In this context, the scores can help admissions officers put students’ grades (and different high schools) in perspective. This is presumably one of the reasons the University of California system is considering the use of the state’s Smarter Balanced high-school test scores in place of the SAT and ACT rather than going test optional or test blind, especially since recent research suggests that the Smarter Balanced test exhibits similar levels of predictive validity and smaller differences between relatively advantaged and disadvantaged groups of students.

Adopting a test-flexible policy or requiring a single test other than the ACT and SAT appears to be a viable strategy for a state system. The university gets to continue using standardized-test scores to screen applicants while also getting credit for ending the tyrannical reign of the despised college-entrance exams. There are several considerations, however, that state-university administrators and governing bodies should keep in mind.

First, although alternative tests may appear more equitable than the SAT or the ACT, this advantage may not necessarily arise from any specific properties of the assessments, but simply because they have never been subjected to the corrupting pressures that high-stakes admissions tests must withstand. Smarter Balanced, for example, which California uses as part of its public-school accountability system, holds high stakes for educators and leaders but has little impact on individual high-school students. Affluent parents don’t pay thousands of dollars for “ringers” to take the Smarter Balanced test for their kids, and organized criminal rings do not supply those ringers, attempt to steal test forms, or sell questions online—at least not yet. State systems will need to constantly monitor the performance and security of the various tests they permit. Other possible assessments in a test-flexible menu, like AP or IB, might better resist these pressures than state-accountability tests, but that is unknown until the pressures become real.

Next, it’s important to note that there is little evidence that test-optional policies succeed in increasing campus diversity. Indeed, what little scientific research exists has produced mixed findings at best. When an institution goes test optional, applications go up, average test scores rise (since applicants with lower scores choose not to send them), but little else seems to change, at least among the liberal-arts colleges that have implemented the policy for the longest amounts of time.

Finally, and as noted earlier, it stands to reason that standardized test scores will reflect the achievement gaps endemic to American education, but colleges and universities are free to consider this reality when developing their holistic application-review procedures. Indeed, within the University of California system there are examples of such adjustments. UC San Diego, for one, accepts disadvantaged minority and lower-income students with average SAT scores that are more than a standard deviation below those of their more-advantaged counterparts.

Indeed, the UC Academic Council’s standardized-testing task force recently concluded, after a review of the evidence around admissions testing, that UC institutions on the whole are using testing responsibly and that the practice has contributed to campus diversity. Moreover, the task force recommended against switching to the state’s Smarter Balanced assessment, in part because such a shift would make it harder to compare in-state applicants to those from states using different testing systems. In its report, issued in February 2020, the task force recommended that the UC system continue to use the SAT and ACT while also working to develop a new standardized-admissions test, tailored to the UC system, that would measure a “broader array of student learning and capabilities” and possibly “enable UC to admit classes of students more representative of the diversity of the state.”

Testing in Perspective

State systems are under enormous pressure to provide access to low-cost, high-quality postsecondary education in a way that is equitable and fair. It is understandable, given the controversy that besets college-entrance testing, that they should want to scrutinize the role of these tests in admissions. When used thoughtfully, as part of a holistic process, well-designed standardized assessments do not have to be a barrier for disadvantaged students—they can serve as a neutral yardstick that helps put students’ academic performance in context. If state systems elect to shift their policies around the use of such tests, they should do so with a clear eye and an active program of research to avoid unintended consequences.

This is part of the forum, “Should State Universities Downplay the SAT?” For an alternate take, see “Test Optional Offers Benefits but It’s Not Enough,” by Dominique Baker and Kelly Rosinger.

Last updated May 19, 2020