Before the pandemic, the shift to optional test admissions was already gaining momentum as concerns mounted that wealthier students could hire tutors, take the tests multiple times and post higher scores. Other critics said the paperwork to waive test fees was a barrier for many low-income students. Then, during the pandemic, it became nearly impossible for students to take exams, and the vast majority of colleges eliminated testing requirements. Some have since restored them, but many have not.
Slay’s research is still ongoing and she presented it preliminary conclusions of the 2022 annual conference of the Association For Education Finance & Policy. When I interviewed her in October 2022, she and her research team had interviewed 22 admissions officers from 16 colleges and universities. All were four-year institutions, but they ranged from public to private, large to small, and religious to non-religious. Four of the colleges had dropped testing requirements in the years before the pandemic, with the other 12 doing so during the pandemic.
It’s no surprise that colleges that have moved to optional testing during the pandemic have suddenly been scrambling to decide how to review applications without standardized testing. But researchers learned that even colleges that had years of experience with elective test admissions were still working out the details of implementation.
Admissions officials feared their colleges would replace standardized tests with measures even more biased in favor of wealthier, white students, such as letters of recommendation and expensive extracurricular activities. A college purchased a data service that ranked high schools and factored those rankings into each application. Students in underserved high schools received a lower ranking, an admissions officer said. It was not a fair process.
Many admissions officers said they struggled to select applicants fairly and were unsure how to weigh an application with test scores versus one without. “I think students with good test scores always have that advantage, especially when you have a student with good test scores versus a student with no test scores and everyone rest on academics is more or less the same,” an admissions officer told Slay.
“It’s really hard to ignore test scores if that’s how you’ve been trained to review applications and think about merit,” Slay said. “If the standardized test is there on file, it could still skew you in ways you’re not aware of. This is an anchoring bias.
Admissions officers also described how they struggled to answer a common but basic question: Are you really a test elective? The students wanted to know if they would have an advantage if they submitted a score on the test. Slay said admissions officers wish they had better guidance on how to answer this question. Since college entrance exam results could also be used for certain scholarships and to determine internships once admitted, it was difficult for admissions officers to say that the test was not yet important.
Larger workloads were a common complaint. College admissions officers said they spend extra time on each application in a diligent effort. Additionally, the volume of applications had increased “a lot” at the selective schools, Slay said. Meanwhile, many offices have lost staff during COVID. Some employees quit amid a strong job market. Budget cuts in some schools have resulted in layoffs and furloughs. Slay said some admissions offices operated with “skeletal” staff.
The stress and pressure of being short-staffed and confused could affect anyone’s decision-making. The conditions were in place to amplify implicit biases – exactly the opposite of the intention of the voluntary testing policy.
Slay hears from colleges that optional testing policies have increased the diversity of the applicant pool, but that may not translate to a more diverse student body.
“One of the things we’ve concluded is that optional testing doesn’t mean an increase in diversity — racial diversity or socioeconomic diversity,” Slay said. “If we haven’t figured out how to assess students who come from diverse backgrounds and come from schools where they may not have the same access to AP or IB courses, it could mean that those students won’t be still not admitted.”