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Advocates hope higher ed shift from standardized tests will aid diversity, but it’s no cure-all

When Worcester Polytechnic Institute wanted to attract more Black, Hispanic and female students, it became the first nationally ranked science university to make the ACT and SAT standardized tests optional for admission.

Eliminating the test requirement can raise the numbers of low-income and first-generation students and those from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups without affecting graduation rates, according to research conducted in collaboration with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.

And white and well-off students from better-resourced high schools and with greater access to private tutoring score better on these tests, according to ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT.

That’s why the rush by universities and colleges to make the SAT and ACT optional during the pandemic has given hope to advocates for more diversity on campus. It’s part of a flurry of activity that has included the closing of testing centers because of health concerns and a decision by the College Board to permanently eliminate the optional essay from the SAT and SAT subject tests.

But WPI discovered an important lesson when it went and made the tests optional in 2007: The policy does little to transform a student body unless it’s accompanied by other changes in the admissions process and shifts in the way financial aid is handed out.

“Institutions are kidding themselves if they believe going test-optional equals diversifying a student body a lot more,” said Angel Pérez, NACAC’s chief executive officer and former vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “You have to put many more strategies in place.”

One in four universities were test-optional by the end of 2019, but the obstacles to group test-taking created by the COVID-19 pandemic increased that number substantially; two-thirds of four-year higher education institutions in the U.S. allowed students to forgo submitting scores this year.

READ MORE: Questioning their fairness, a record number of colleges stop requiring the SAT and ACT

Critics of the tests have been exuberant about that decision, even though many of those colleges have said they’ll wait until after the pandemic to decide whether to make the policy permanent.

But the experiences of WPI and many other institutions make clear that jettisoning the requirement for test scores does not by itself mean schools will attract a more diverse enrollment.

Without more investment in recruiting, financial aid, advising and mentoring for low-income, first-generation, Black and Hispanic students, test-optional or even test-blind admissions policies will amount to little more than “window dressing,” said Kelly Ochs Rosinger, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University who has studied test-optional admissions.

The need for those kinds of commitments comes at a time when universities and colleges are strapped for cash. A big enrollment decline and increased costs attributed to COVID-19 have cost universities and colleges at least $120 billion since the pandemic began, according to estimates by the American Council on Education.

Rather than going up, the number of low-income, Black and Native American students starting college fell this year, and upward momentum for Hispanic students stalled, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported. Absenteeism and demoralization in high schools that have gone fully or partially remote is translating into fewer urban and rural students planning to go to college next year, based on the proportion who are filling out applications for financial aid.

READ MORE: Number of rural students planning on going to college plummets

Research is not unanimous on whether dropping the test requirement leads to greater diversity. The College Board points to a series of studies — whose three editors all worked for the College Board at some point  — that found eliminating them doesn’t boost the numbers of underrepresented students and takes away a valuable tool for admissions officers.

But the largest study on the topic to date did find that a well-executed test-optional admissions policy can increase the numbers of these kinds of students pursuing higher educations. In the process, however, the  “the proportion of needy students” rose at roughly half of institutions surveyed.

Admissions officials with experience in making SAT and ACT scores optional say responding to the needs of additional low-income students requires not just allocating more money but also changing the way it’s spent. WPI, in 2019, stopped awarding financial aid based on the test scores of students who submitted them; that was the culmination of a three-year process looking at where scores “were improperly influencing aid dollars,” said Andrew Palumbo, assistant vice president for enrollment management.

It also withdrew from the National Merit Scholarship Program, which is based on the preliminary SAT, or PSAT, taken by high school sophomores and juniors. High-scoring students can receive scholarships from the program as well as from participating universities and colleges.

“We redirected those dollars to go back to need-based aid,” Palumbo said, meaning financial aid based on income rather than test scores. “This goes back to the idea of test-optional being a starting point. If we want to be optional for admissions because of the problematic correlation of race and income and gender and then we’re reinforcing that [correlation] for merit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

READ MORE: Progress in getting underrepresented people into college and skilled jobs may be stalling because of the pandemic

Since WPI went test-optional, the school has increased its numbers of full-time Hispanic students from about 4 percent to 8 percent of the total, and of women from 27 percent to 39 percent. Black enrollment has grown but remains at little more than 2 percent. Palumbo said the small percentage reflects the relatively few Black students enrolled in advanced high school science, technology, engineering and math classes; to address that, WPI has invested in a pre-collegiate outreach program.

The number of students considered low-income, meaning they qualify for federal Pell grants, has also increased, though the percentage has hovered between 12 percent and 16 percent.

The bottom line is that one change can’t move the needle, Palumbo said, but a combination of big and small ones can. WPI also worked on reducing bias in its admissions process by reversing the order in which it considered applicants, looking at grades and test scores last instead of first.

“The ‘objective’ scores go last,” Palumbo said. “We want to know who the student is, to understand the context, before we ever get to the transcript.”

The University of San Francisco also went test-optional before the pandemic, in 2019. Before that, however, it took other steps to diversify its student body. It increased its recruitment of Black candidates nationwide and added programs to support them when they arrived on campus. That boosted first-year enrollment of what the school calls Black-identified students from 8.9 percent in 2017 to 15 percent in 2020.

Standardized tests continue to be viewed as an important hurdle, however — so much so that the test-optional movement has quickly expanded to the graduate level, with critics saying the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and other exams used for admission reflect the same racial and income biases as the SAT and ACT.

That criticism has been accelerated by the pandemic, which has seen huge increases in the numbers of applications to medical schools and other graduate programs.

READ MORE: Desperate for students, colleges resort to previously banned recruiting tactics

Students for Ethical Admissions was formed by pre-med students and medical school applicants to protest the requirement that they take the MCAT during the COVID-19 crisis. Some who are part of the organization say they now question the need for the test at all.

“I do understand you do have to have an objective academic measurement, but is this the best way?” said one member of the group, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of hurting her chances of getting into medical school.

“A lot of the MCAT is not applicable to medicine — it emphasizes rote memorization,” the student said. “We would like to see transparency in how medical schools are using the test and to see a compelling reason not to make it optional.”

Blacks and Hispanics make up roughly 5 percent each of the doctors in the U.S., according to the Association of American Medical Colleges — far lower than their proportions of the population.

Admissions officers counter that they’re too often asked to fix racial and economic inequities deeply rooted in society as a whole.

Rosinger acknowledged that’s impossible to do, but she also said that universities need to stop adopting “a single-lever policy, hoping that will make some dramatic changes, and really start to think comprehensively about the system that oppresses certain students.”

This story about colleges going test-optional was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.