What does the shift to test-optional admissions mean for educational equity?

Feb. 2, 2021, 9:48 p.m.

Performance on standardized tests is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status and family background. That relationship, the panelists in Tuesday’s conversation, “Test Scores Optional: What It Means for Access to Higher Education,” largely agreed upon. But they also concluded that simply shifting to a test-optional admissions system — as many colleges and universities have done amid the COVID-19 pandemic — is not enough to combat the inequities ingrained in the college admissions process. 

The conversation, which was sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, began hours after Stanford announced that it will not require test scores for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle due to the continued challenges of COVID-19. But, according to Angel Pérez, the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the test-optional shift was already gaining traction before the pandemic as standardized testing grew more controversial and as institutions began to consider their role in perpetuating systemic racism and inequity. 

Ana Rowena McCullough ’95 J.D. ’99, the co-founder and CEO of QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing access to the nation’s most selective institutions for low-income youth, has observed the impact of standardized testing on disadvantaged populations since she founded the program as an undergraduate in 1994. 

“What we saw was that the test score itself, at least in practice, didn’t seem to be an accurate measure of whether students were prepared or capable of thriving at some of the best colleges in the country,” she said. 

Though some are quick to embrace the test-optional system as an engine of educational equity, the panelists remain skeptical.

Jesse Rothstein, a public policy and economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, cited a scenario in which an admissions officer is confronted with two students who are similarly qualified, but only one has chosen to submit an SAT score. Students from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to perform well on tests and will therefore be more likely to submit them, he said. Plus, these students will have access to advisers who can help them make strategic decisions no matter their score. Admissions offices, therefore, may be more likely to admit students from higher socioeconomic statuses, once again disadvantaging students from low-income families, according to Rothstein. 

University of Virginia economics and education professor Sarah Turner shares some of Rothstein’s concerns. As more institutions shifted to test-optional admissions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Turner authored a column in which she outlined why this system may not increase opportunities for low-income students. Turner’s research suggests that there are more students with high grade point averages (GPAs) from affluent families than from low-income families. 

Focusing on other factors, such as a student’s lived experience and non-academic qualities, is a crucial step in the quest to make college admissions more equitable, McCullough said. This includes transforming what standardized assessments are intended to measure. 

According to Rothstein, current tests are designed to measure a particular conception of college preparedness that directly correlates with family background. Responding to the suggestion that the SAT is a good predictor of applicants’ first-year college performance, Rothstein said that the test appears to be a strong predictor primarily because it is so closely correlated with family background, which is inherently tied to a student’s predicted first-year performance. 

The shift to a test-optional system does not come without its critics. Some admissions officers, Pérez said, believe that standardized tests help “level the playing field” for applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. But he pushed back on this claim. 

“The reality is that until we fix our educational system in this country, we are not leveling the playing field,” he said. 

Colleges already have everything they need to evaluate applicants without test scores, according to Pérez. This includes high school GPA and the rigor of a student’s curriculum, which, he explained, are high on the list of evaluation tools. But holistic admissions also requires placing a greater emphasis on applicants’ written responses, recommendations and extracurricular activities. 

Given the billion-dollar industry that is college admissions and test preparation, Pérez explained, it is nearly impossible to prevent these resources from adapting to a qualitative admissions system. In his view, the onus is ultimately on schools to evaluate each application contextually, including by scrutinizing the authenticity of applicants’ essays. 

“Our colleagues at the schools that we work with often feel that they can tell when it feels like a very produced essay,” McCullough said. At this point in the conversation, Pérez was smiling — he was receiving texts from admissions officers at highly selective institutions who were encouraging him to chime in. “Of course I can tell,” he said. “Admissions officers can tell when a 45-year-old wrote the essay.” 

But in Rothstein’s view, it remains impossible to eliminate manipulation, especially when admission to selective colleges remains highly coveted. 

He proposed a different approach. Elite colleges always seem to say that they receive thousands more qualified applicants than they can admit, Rothstein said. So why not have elite schools identify a larger pool of qualified applicants than can be accepted and randomly select who receives admission?

“Send a clear signal to families that there is nothing you can do that will guarantee you admission,” Rothstein said. “Because I don’t think anything else is going to get rid of the arms race that we have.” 

Contact Georgia Rosenberg at georgiar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

This article has been updated to include that the event was sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.

Georgia Rosenberg is the Vol. 261 executive editor for print. She was previously a Vol. 260 news managing editor and a Vol. 258/259 desk editor for university news. Contact her at grosenberg 'at' stanforddaily.com!

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