Test-optional policies here to stay, ACT report suggests

Even though many colleges cited pandemic-related challenges in deciding to stop requiring standardized test scores from applicants this past year, institutions are unlikely to snap back to test-required policies in the short term, according to research shared by ACT officials. The report notes that around half of four-year institutions had adopted test-optional policies prior to COVID-19; an additional 30 percent transitioned to a test-optional approach during 2020, some temporarily, some permanently. 

Unlikely to return to test-required 

Hoping to better understand how colleges and universities are using test data, ACT engaged the market research firm EY-Parthenon to survey enrollment officials. According to the report, which reflects 207 responses from public and private institutions, institutions with test-optional policies aren’t planning to switch back to test-required anytime soon, although institutions whose test-optional policies were COVID-driven “note uncertainty in determining future policies.” Survey respondents indicated that the next few application cycles will be telling—and that student yield and retention outcomes could determine the permanence of COVID-driven test-optional policies.

However, rapid adoption of test-blind policies—in which a college does not consider test scores in reviewing applications—“is quite unlikely,” writes ACT CEO Janet Godwin, adding that four-year colleges and universities still “report significant use of testing data in almost every aspect of the enrollment process.” 

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than half of institutions responding to the ACT survey said they use standardized test scores “to a moderate or considerable degree” in sourcing and recruiting students and awarding merit scholarships. Godwin notes that scholarship distribution appeared to be a particular “pain point” for schools that adopted test-optional policies.      

Nonetheless, at least 1,360 four-year institutions already have said they will not require fall 2022 applicants to include ACT/SAT scores, and that number is expected to grow, Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, told Inside Higher Ed.  

Far fewer students submitting scores, Common App says

The release of the ACT findings coincided with new Common Application data showing that, as of February 15, just 44 percent of students who applied to college using the Common App had submitted ACT or SAT scores. Last year at this time, 77 percent of Common App users had submitted scores with their applications.

According to Inside Higher Ed, colleges that had test-optional policies in place prior to the pandemic typically received test scores from around two-thirds to three-quarters of applicants, meaning that the new numbers could “represent a major change in the way students apply to college and the way colleges evaluate applicants, at least temporarily.” 

The overall drop-off was somewhat expected, given the widespread test cancellations and movement toward test-optional policies this past year, Common App officials say. In addition, it reflects “the great efforts colleges expended to convince their applicants that optional means optional and that nonsubmission would not hamper their chances of admission,” says Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.  

In sharing the data, Common App CEO Jenny Rickard highlighted several variations in test score submission across student and institutional subgroups. Specifically, first-generation, fee waiver recipients, and applicants from underrepresented minority groups were less likely to submit test scores with their applications than their peers. In addition, more selective institutions received test scores with a greater share of applications than less selective colleges.

Reacting to the Common App data, ACT called the trends “disappointing,” adding that test scores “convey a wealth of information beyond a number from 1-36 that helps colleges and institutions understand a student’s needs to better support them through each step of the college journey, academically and socially and emotionally.”

Topics in this story
, ,

Next Up

How colleges are enhancing career services to support first-gen students

Recognizing that the college-to-career transition can be especially challenging for students who are the first in their families to graduate, campus career centers are finding ways to improve outreach and address common hurdles.