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​Test-optional may not be the answer

Attempts by colleges to make the admissions process fairer can fall short

Forty-seven colleges and universities have announced test-optional policies for college admissions, bringing the total to more than 850, according to The New York Times. These include schools in Virginia; Virginia Commonwealth University recently became the fifth Virginia public school to adopt a test-optional approach. At some test-optional schools, if applicants don’t submit test scores they are required to submit additional written materials.

The surge of test-optional policies accompanies numerous reforms to the college application process, including changes to the SAT and the Common Application, which is accepted by more than 500 colleges and universities. In general, schools are attempting to evaluate applicants more holistically to better understand the authentic student.

Holistic evaluations are important; for instance, colleges should certainly take into account socioeconomic status and how a student’s circumstances may shape standardized elements of his application, especially given the strong correlation between higher income and higher standardized test scores. But there is a difference between taking circumstance into account and overly personalizing the college application process.

The college application process is by no means entirely meritocratic now, but the more personal it becomes, the less meritocratic it becomes, too. Admissions offices need better metrics with which to evaluate their applicants — but that doesn’t mean we should do away with metrics altogether. If admissions officers base their decisions more on personal essays than numerical data, their process may become influenced more by personal biases. Test-optional policies are not a silver bullet for solving inequalities in the admissions process.

Moreover, the push to become test-optional may not be entirely altruistic. A 2014 study at the University of Georgia found that schools that drop SAT/ACT requirements receive 250 more applications on average, thus giving them a larger applicant pool that can make them appear more selective. Over time, this number will likely increase. Additionally, since students with lower test scores would likely take advantage of a test-optional policy, the average test scores of applicants and admitted students will rise. Average test scores factor into the widely-read college rankings in U.S. News & World Report.

The same UGA study found no statistical difference in enrollment of low-income and underrepresented minority students between schools that required tests and those that were test-optional. Conversely, William Hiss, former dean of Bates College, found in his own study that among 20 private and six public universities with test-optional policies, the student body’s population of underrepresented minorities increased 6 percentage points from 2003 to 2010. The jury’s still out on whether this policy is beneficial.

Colleges constantly struggle to find the best criteria with which to evaluate applicants, and whether those criteria inhibit or help otherwise disadvantaged students in the application process. Taking extenuating circumstances into account can be necessary, but this new policy is not a panacea for systemic issues.