Is Your Institution Prepared to Admit and Aid Students Without Standardized Test Scores?

July 28, 2020

oth the College Board and ACT websites currently state that testing will be offered this fall and more test dates have been added for both the SAT and ACT exams. At the very least, however, reduced capacity guidelines put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 will make it more difficult to ensure that every student has the opportunity to take one of the tests.

The College Board is reporting “very high interest in students wanting to register for the SAT”. Likewise, ACT’s website states that online registration for the exam is unavailable today, July 28th, in order to improve performance “due to high demand”. According to the website, registration will re-open tomorrow, July 29th. ACT also continues to update its list of rescheduled test centers. Given that so many schools rely on one (or both) of these two standardized tests to make both admission and financial aid decisions, how can colleges and universities prepare for the inevitability that some, but not all, of their applicants will be able to submit test scores with their application?

Luckily, there is a road map that was constructed and continues to be refined by the growing number of schools that have decided to make standardized test scores an optional component of their undergraduate application. Although there are many factors that may influence a school’s decision to become “test-optional”, one of the biggest reasons is that it allows for a more holistic review of applications. It is widely recognized that family income is positively correlated with test performance and both tests still struggle to remove racial and ethnic biases that appear to be present in the exams. One of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to a test-optional application policy, however, is making sure that allowing applicants to choose whether or not they will submit test scores does not perpetuate bias against a particular group, such as those who do not submit a score.

Protecting against systematic bias in the review process for a test-optional institution requires a robust methodology for reviewing and rating other aspects of the application, including quantitative measures such as high school GPA. In the past 20 years, grade inflation and the resulting range restriction of high school GPAs in the applicant pools of most institutions have complicated the extent to which reviewers can rely on raw high school GPAs. Reviewers must make judgments about what a GPA from high school X says about a student versus the same GPA from someone at high school Y. Often counselors interpret a high GPA from a “strong” high school (i.e., one that is more academically challenging) as more impressive than a high GPA from a “weaker” school. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that the “strength” of a high school is often correlated with the socioeconomic status of the people in the surrounding community, as these schools have greater resources. For this reason, using the strength of a high school as a factor in an admission decision needs to be done with great care in order to avoid the same type of bias colleges are trying to move away from when they institute a test-optional policy.

It is also helpful to assess applicants on qualitative factors that have been found to be related to success, such as a person’s ability to overcome obstacles or their “grit” (see the work of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania). But, rating qualitative factors can get messy. Most schools have more than one person reviewing applications and one person’s rating of an applicant may be different than another person’s rating of the same applicant when the factor being evaluated is subjective. However, it is possible to achieve inter-rater reliability on qualitative factors and schools that had already begun to move in this direction before the pandemic hit are now in a less vulnerable position than those who had not, as they are better equipped to operate in an environment without standardized test scores.

With so much uncertainty about the availability of standardized testing, we are talking with many schools about creating new ways to review applications and award aid in the absence of scores altogether. At the center of these discussions is a desire to be equitable and fair, while at the same time creating strategies that will ensure the institution meets its enrollment goals. Every institution’s response to these issues will be unique, but schools that create plans soon and clearly communicate those plans will fare better than those who do not.

To learn more about how HAI can help your institution make the move to a test-optional admission cycle, please contact us here.