Students are seizing the strategic opportunity presented by test-optional policies, research suggests

A new working paper by researchers from the College Board and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that college applicants are strategic about which standardized test scores they send to colleges with test-optional policies, Higher Ed Dive reports. For the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers looked at data from the College Board, which administers the SAT, and admissions data for Fall 2021 at 50 selective U.S. colleges and universities.

“[Test-optional] policies’ impacts on competitive admissions and higher education access will depend on how applicants and institutions regard these policies as strategic opportunities,” the study authors note.

They found that enrolled students who had submitted their test results had scores that were equal to the median scores of their institution’s previous classes, while enrolled students who had not submitted their results had lower scores—averaging at the 19th percentile.

Students’ decision to submit scores was dependent not only on a school’s test-submission policies—and their promise not to penalize applicants who chose not to provide scores—but also on their overall academic performance and the college’s selectivity. This behavior occurred for applicants across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Impact of submitting, withholding test scores

Students who submitted test scores were more likely to have higher GPAs in their first year of college than those who did not. They were also less likely to have GPAs under 3.0. Students who did not send in standardized test results were more likely to earn lower first-year GPAs and fewer college credits.

“This difference in scores between withholders and disclosers may represent a substantial information loss to universities, which would benefit from knowing which enrolled students need additional academic support,” the paper says.

Advocates say test-optional policies improve access to higher education and diversity among applicants, as students of color are more likely to apply to colleges that have these policies. However, higher education leaders have voiced concern that students’ academic performance and college readiness is becoming harder to gauge, as fewer college applicants send in test scores and GPAs continue to rise.

A long-term shift?

The students included in the study sample were applying to college during the height of the pandemic, researchers note, adding that applicants who experienced prolonged, pandemic-induced school and test center closures were less likely to disclose their test scores than students who lived in areas where schools were more quickly reopened and where there were more testing options available. Still, admissions data from the entering class of 2022 suggests that test-optional policies have continued to shape applicants’ behavior, the authors say.

Students appear to trust that colleges with test-optional policies are truly not penalizing applications without test scores and are instead looking at other metrics to evaluate academic performance. However, if admissions professionals “infer poor testing aptitude when scores are not present, then the voluntary nature of test-optional policies may unravel, and all applicants will feel compelled to disclose scores,” the study authors write.

Meanwhile, the absence of test scores may leave colleges less informed about how prepared incoming classes are for college academics. Education leaders look out for students who may need additional academic support as they begin their college experience, experts say. 

“We think of this result as evidence that students arrive on campus with a variety of academic backgrounds and strengths, and colleges may want to track which students need assistance for a successful launch into college,” Brian McManus, co-author of the study and professor of economics at UNC-Chapel Hill, tells Higher Ed Dive.

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