SAT Test Optional Policies Backfiring on Underrepresented Groups

By March 13, 2019 News
Students of color may consider applying to test-optional schools in order to improve their chances of admissions, but new findings show that this isn’t always the case.

Several years ago, colleges and universities adopted an SAT optional policy in order to create more equity in entrance opportunities for students of color and underrepresented groups. Unfortunately, we are seeing unintended negative consequences for these students instead of the positive growth in college diversity. It turns out that SAT Optional is not bringing in more students of underrepresented groups to elite colleges and universities.

Making the SAT optional was intended to even out the playing field for students of ethnic and economic diverse backgrounds. Since research on standardized test scores shows almost no predictability of college success, the use of these scores by colleges and universities is a barrier to minority students instead of a helpful indicator. Furthermore, research shows that test scores are strongly correlated to economic and racial background, and low-income and underrepresented minority students tend to score lower on average than their peers. These groups of students have limited access to test preparation materials and courses, and the cost of taking the exams can also be a barrier.

Research indicates that test-optional policies have actually made selective colleges even more selective and have not helped in the increasement of low-income and underrepresented student enrollment (Belasco, Rosinger & Hearn, 2015). The research looked at the enrollment and SAT scores among low-income and underrepresented minority students at 180 liberal arts colleges. Of those 180 colleges, 32 had adopted a test-optional policy. They found that test-optional policies led to a general increase in the number of applications, making selective colleges become even more selective. One may question whether SAT Optional is intended to help students of underrepresented groups gain access to college or whether it is intended to help schools with their rankings, since the appearance of selectivity helps universities and colleges with their college rankings which are published every year. The other result was a 25-point increase in the reported SAT scores of enrolled students. Higher-scoring students are probably more likely to submit scores to help their applications look stronger while lower-scoring students may not share their scores with colleges. Again, higher average scores yield higher college rankings. It seems test-optional policies may actually be hurting the population of students it was intended to help, while helping colleges and universities with their rankings

The intent of the test-optional movement was to aid low-income and minority students into elite colleges. These groups have been historically underrepresented at selective college campuses. But if universities and colleges are really committed to this purpose rather than using SAT Optional policies to increase their rankings, they must do more for these students. For example, colleges and universities must realize that there are several other barriers students from these groups must overcome. Making the SAT optional simply cannot make up for these factors. For example, even though some schools offer a considerable amount of financial aid to students that need financial help, these amounts are not typically known until after the student has applied and been accepted to the institution. Therefore, students are less likely to apply to colleges and universities that seem beyond their financial reach. Another factor in the college application process for these students is the distance between home and school. This is especially true for students who financially help their families. As a consequence, many of these students attend colleges that are close to home. Lastly, students from these groups notice that there are not many students with similar backgrounds as theirs at these elite schools, making them feel like isolated.

SAT Optional policies cannot remedy the fact that college applicants with economic and racial privilege have an upperhand when it comes to grades, course selection such as access to advanced high school classes, recommendations, essays and extracurricular activities. Students with privilege have a lot of support with the college admissions process and have access to school and private counselors to help them with their college entrance essays and recommendations. Colleges and universities must do more to increase access for low-income and historically underrepresented students. They must focus efforts on recruiting students from rural areas or areas with large numbers of low-income or minority students, expanding financial aid programs, developing campus supports, and making emergency funds accessible to students who may have unexpected needs arise. These are just a few ways amongst many that higher institutions must try to develop to recruit students from underrepresented groups.

Belasco, A. S., Rosinger, K. O., & Hearn, J. C. (2015). The Test-Optional Movement at America’s Selective Liberal Arts Colleges. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(2), 206-223. doi:10.3102/0162373714537350


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