Test-Optional Policies:

If and how they affect your student


If your student is preparing to apply to college, you may have learned that there is an ever-increasing number of schools that are making the submission of standardized test scores optional. By making what has historically been a staple in the college admissions process optional, these institutions have stirred up a fair amount of confusion and excitement. In this blog post, I’d like to take the time to talk about Test-Optional Policies (TOPs): what their purpose is, how they affect the application process, and whether or not your student should submit their test scores.

In 2018, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) hosted a conference on TOPs. The topic of presentation was an extensive research study conducted by Syverson, Franks, and Hiss on nearly all of the measurable effects that the adoption of a TOP can have on a school. These effects range from admissions rates to financial aid disbursement to college performance to graduation rates. The authors of the study drew information from 28 anonymous public and private colleges and universities that amounted to a dataset of nearly one million students. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on the admissions side of things. As a prologue to their 86-page report, the authors offer what they termed an “Executive Summary”, which runs through the basics of their findings. I’m going to provide a synopsis of the parts of the Executive Summary regarding admissions. In case the Executive Summary doesn’t sate your hunger for knowledge, I am also going to address some of the big questions regarding TOPs in a Q&A-style analysis, so read on!


Executive Summary:

In recent years, the number of colleges adopting TOPs has skyrocketed and, as those numbers increase, different kinds of TOPs have emerged. Some schools offer their TOP to all students, some only offer the option to students below a certain income threshold, some only offer the option to students with a high enough class rank or GPA, and the list of variations goes on. Despite their differences in implementation, most, if not all, of the momentum driving the popularity of TOPs is based on the idea that the use of standardized tests can “unnecessarily truncate the admission of otherwise well-qualified students”. (Syverson et. al., 2018) The idea is that students with the means to prepare for the test are at a significant advantage over students who cannot afford (whether in terms of time or money) extracurricular preparation, thereby perpetuating a status quo in terms of social class and opportunity.

The kinds of institutions that participated in the study were diverse in many respects, in addition to being either public or private. Some had undergraduate enrollments as small as 1,500 students, while others had undergraduate enrollments as large 20,000 students. Some had admissions selectivity rates as low as 15% and others had admission rates as high as 90%. Ultimately, the researchers were granted access to the data of 955,774 anonymous students from these institutions. In their interactions with these schools, the researchers sought direct conversation with the deans of admissions, people who could genuinely speak on behalf of the actions of the institutions they represented. The nearly unanimous opinion expressed by these people is that their institution adopted a TOP primarily in hopes of increasing the diversity of the students who applied and subsequently matriculated. Specifically, TOPs were targeting populations of under-served students, including not only certain racial backgrounds but also demographics such as low socio-economic status and first-generation college students. These students are referred to as underrepresented minorities (URMs).

The data supports the idea that the implementation of a TOP can serve to mitigate social and economic barriers that URMs may face in their pursuits of higher education. However, it is worth noting that students who did not submit scores (non-submitters) were, on average, admitted at lower rates than those who did submit scores (submitters). Part of the research study focused on what kind of relationship high school GPA and test scores have with success in college. While 73% of the non-submitters did not even take the SAT or the ACT, the remaining 27% of them did and simply chose not to submit their scores. Looking specifically at the non-submitters for whom there was test score data, high school GPA had a much stronger correlation with academic success in college than their test scores. The implication is that colleges and universities have less reason to worry about whether non-submitters will flourish or flounder in school than they may have initially thought. So, with the understanding that test scores are not the only indicator of academic success in college, more and more institutions are adopting test-optional policies to serve underrepresented minorities.


Do you still have questions about Test-Optional Policies? I’ll be addressing some of the big ones here.


What if a student isn’t a URM – they just do not test well. Are TOPs not meant for them?

The short answer is that TOPs still affect them. While the opinions expressed by the institutions that participated in the study are largely concerned with increasing accessibility and opportunity for URMs, there is clear recognition that standardized tests are a stumbling block for students who test poorly. Although there is a distinction to be made between a student who doesn’t test well because of a learning disability and a student who doesn’t test well for lack of practice, just remember that, without test scores, admissions committees have no option but to scrutinize the other aspects of an application even more intensely. A great college application will give the admissions committee a robust, multifaceted picture of who the applicant is. For many URMs who opt for non-submission, test scores blur this picture rather than enhance it.


If non-submitters are admitted at lower rates, why would a student opt not to submit scores?

It’s important to understand why these kinds of trends emerge among non-submitters. I’m going to answer this question by analogy. Let’s take a look at a statistic that the evidence clearly supports: the strong correlation between high school GPA and success in college for non-submitters. For non-submitters who had test scores, the scores were, on average, not nearly as strong of an indicator of their success in college. On the other hand, data showed that, for submitters, test scores were, in many cases, just as strong (or stronger) an indication of performance in college as high school GPA. But this doesn’t mean that a student can choose whether their college success will more closely mirror their high school GPA or their test scores just by deciding whether or not to send in scores.

Let’s imagine a student with a 4.0 GPA and an 1100 SAT. It wouldn’t make sense for them to say to themselves, “Well, my GPA is perfect but my SAT isn’t and I want a perfect college record. If I don’t submit my scores, then I’ll be a non-submitter and my high school GPA will more closely correlate with my success in college!”

You may be able to intuitively sense that there is something misguided about this logic. The reasons that correlations between college success and high school GPA emerge for non-submitters is because of who is not submitting their test scores. It isn’t as though the actual decision not to submit scores somehow determines a student’s future performance. Similarly, the mere act of not submitting test scores doesn’t automatically make a student less likely to be admitted. Non-submitters are admitted less frequently than submitters because of who is not submitting their scores. “Non-submitter” is a broad label used to categorize a group and what really matters are the characteristics and qualifications of the people in that group.


If a school is test-optional, is submitting test scores obsolete?

The answer to this question is a resounding “no” for a number of reasons. Firstly, test scores provide admissions committees with additional information that can be quite important. The more selective a college is, the harder it is for an applicant to distinguish themselves from the rest. Withholding test scores is equivalent to withholding information that has the potential to instantly distinguish an applicant from a percentile of the other applicants. Remember that an application should tell the admissions committee a robust story about the applicant. In the same way that the topic and style of an application essay allows the applicant to shape that narrative, including or not including test scores extends that capacity. Reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of an application is often a necessary step in deciding whether or not to submit test scores.

Secondly, the study’s research showed that the majority of participating institutions provided “less generous gift packages to Non-Submitters (both needy and no-need) than to their Submitters”. (Syverson et. al., 2018) A school’s decision to offer financial aid to a student is a very case-by-case decision and we can’t extract the justifications for these sorts of decisions by looking purely at aggregate data. However, we can say that this likely circles back to the concept of submitting test scores as providing additional information (or as giving more detail to the applicant’s story). Simply put, submitting test scores can give admissions committees a clearer idea of an applicant’s academic profile, leading to increased confidence in judgment of the applicant’s potential. In the case of merit scholarships, for instance, test scores clearly have the ability to emphasize or elevate a student’s merit. The more confident the admissions committee is, the more money a college is willing to invest in the applicant’s academic career.


What if a student is unsure whether they should take a test and submit their scores?

At the end of the day, nothing stands up to direct experience. Taking a mock exam (or a real one) and assessing performance often lends the clearest insight. Just because you took the SAT or the ACT doesn’t obligate you to report the score. A word of warning, though, is that some schools have full disclosure policies so it’s best to read about the policies at the schools you’re interested in.

Mindspire offers free simulations of both tests (using real, previously-administered tests or official practice tests) with a follow-up analysis of performance and a score report that breaks down the test. We have locations in North Carolina in Durham, Raleigh, Cary, and Charlotte, as well as a location in Richmond, Virginia. Our free simulated tests are offered on most Saturdays.


What about admissions and success in college for the students who do submit their scores?

The admissions part of this question is easier to answer. This circles back to the idea that applications are meant to give admissions committees a vivid image of the applicant. Additional information, like tests scores, makes this image clearer and the admissions committee will consequently be more confident in the judgment they render. This means that a student who wants to submit their test scores should consider the strengths and weaknesses of what their application conveys and think about how their test scores fit in with the rest of their application. Often times, the selectivity of the institution will have an important role to play in this decision-making process. For example, if a student is applying to a selective school, there is a high probability that the majority of applicants have strong GPAs. Providing test scores is one way in which an applicant can distinguish themselves from other applicants with similar GPAs.

Thinking about how test scores predict a student’s success in college is more difficult because it is, again, important to understand that the relationship between test scores and academic success in college is a very particular kind of relationship. The study found that test scores have a “solid correlation for [college] GPA for Submitters”. (Syverson et. al., 2018) However, this doesn’t mean that a student with a 2.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score can simply submit their scores and then happily proclaim, “I’m a submitter! Now my grades in college will more closely mirror my SAT score than my GPA!” Again, the trend among submitters’ test scores and their academic success emerges because of who is submitting their test scores. The decisions to submit test scores is not what determines whether college GPA will more closely mirror high school GPA or test scores. Test submitters have a strong correlation between their scores and their GPA because of who is submitting their tests.


Still have questions?

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