Test Optional Policies Backfiring on Underrepresented Groups

By March 13, 2019April 30th, 2020College Entrance Exams
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.
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 a test optional policy. The stated intent was to create more equity in entrance opportunities for students of underrepresented groups. Unfortunately, we are seeing unintended negative consequences 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.

Unintended Consequences of Test Optional Policy

In order to even out the playing field for students of ethnic and economic diverse backgrounds, many higher education institutions have embraced test optional policies. 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. There is a strong correlation between test scores and economic and racial background. Low-income and underrepresented minority students tend to score lower on average than their peers. These groups of students typically have limited access to test preparation materials and courses. Also, the cost of taking the exams can also be a barrier.

Test Optional Is Not Helping The People It Is Supposed to Help

Research indicates that test-optional policies have actually made selective colleges even more selective. They have not helped in the increase 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.

Increases College Rankings

Is the SAT Optional policy truly intended to help underrepresented students gain access to college? Or is it intended to help schools with their rankings? The appearance of selectivity helps universities and colleges with their college rankings (which are published every year). This policy may be helping the institutions more than the applicants. In addition, a 25-point increase in the reported SAT scores of enrolled students shows the selectivity increase. Higher-scoring students are probably more likely to submit scores to help their applications look stronger. Lower-scoring students may not share their scores with colleges. Again, higher average scores yield higher college rankings. Test-optional policies are hurting the population of students it was intended to help. But test-optional policies are definitely helping colleges and universities with their rankings.

Institutions Should Consider Other Crucial Factors

The intent of the test-optional movement was to aid low-income and minority students into elite colleges. Historically underrepresented groups at selective college campuses need more access to resources and more opportunities. More must be done for students if universities and colleges are really committed to this purpose (rather than using SAT Optional policies to increase their rankings). 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, some schools offer a considerable amount of financial aid to students that need financial help. However, students do not know the specific amounts of financial aid until after application and acceptance 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.

Test Optional Is Not Enough

SAT Optional policies cannot remedy the fact that college applicants with economic and racial privilege have an upper-hand when it comes to college entrance. They have more access to help with 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. Many times they 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. Institutions need to expand financial aid programs and make emergency funds accessible to students who may have unexpected needs arise. They must also increase campus supports. These are just a few ways amongst many that higher institutions must try to develop to recruit students from underrepresented groups.

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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