Joining with most major public universities on the West Coast Thursday, the University of Washington announced it will no longer require applicants to submit scores for standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT.
Earlier this year, the UW temporarily changed its admission policy for applicants because the high-stakes standardized tests were canceled across the nation this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, that change is permanent — or at least as permanent as policies in college admissions ever are.
“We’re absolutely at the watershed moment in terms of standardized testing,” as more and more colleges drop the tests, said Steve Syverson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at UW Bothell and the co-author of a major 2018 report on the effects of test-optional policies.
Researchers and advocates who are critical of the ACT and SAT have long argued that the standardized tests contribute to inequities in college admissions because families with more money can game the system by hiring tutors or sending their kids to test-taking prep classes to boost their scores.
In the 2018 national study Syverson co-authored, researchers found that at test-optional colleges, students who had significantly lower SAT and ACT scores — and who didn’t submit those scores — graduated from college at the same rate as students who did submit scores. The report examined student records at 28 colleges and universities.
The study also showed that test-optional schools admitted higher numbers of low-income students, underrepresented minorities, women and first-generation students, Syverson said.
When a college goes test-optional, “it opens opportunities, particularly for kids who are good, solid students but may not have done well on the tests,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing. By his organization’s count, 53% of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities have made admissions test-optional at least for fall 2021, and many say the change will be permanent.
In its announcement Thursday, the UW said it had studied results and outcomes for several years, and found there’s little correlation between college-entrance test scores and college success. The change will allow applicants to focus instead on taking a rigorous, college-preparatory high-school curriculum, UW officials said.
“Careful analysis and research showed that standardized testing did not add meaningfully to the prediction of student success that our holistic admission process already provides,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement.
Standardized tests do a good job of predicting a student’s freshman GPA, Syverson said. But, “does it really matter to you — and at most institutions it really doesn’t — whether a student is going to have a 3.2 or a 3.4 GPA” at the end of freshman year, he asked.
If the tests revealed that a student who didn’t meet a certain score would be unlikely to ever graduate, and thus should not be admitted, that would be an appropriate use, he said. But “that’s not how we use it.”
Thursday’s permanent test-optional announcement only applied to UW Seattle, but both UW Bothell and UW Tacoma are in discussion about testing and are expected to follow suit. For all three campuses, the UW had already changed its admission policy for students who are currently high-school juniors — students who usually would be taking the tests this year before applying for admission for fall 2021 — because the tests were canceled across the U.S. this spring amid the pandemic.
Under the new policy, students can still submit scores, but low scores won’t harm an applicant; the admissions office is still weighing how it will consider high scores, said UW spokesman Victor Balta in an email. “Even with our past holistic review, these scores were a minor consideration compared to curriculum quality and performance in courses,” he said.
The UW plans to continue using a College Board tool called Landscape, which helps the school determine the types of challenges applicants have faced.
Sara Sympson, a spokeswoman for the College Board, which administers the SAT, said in an email that the company’s mission “isn’t to ensure all colleges require the SAT, it’s to expand access to college for more students and help them succeed when they get there.” However, she said, research and evidence show the value of using SAT scores in context as one part of the admissions process.
Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said the “most destructive” aspect of the tests is that they are overused. “There are a lot more students who can do the work than get in” to college, he said. “The game is getting in, not being able to do the work.”
But Carnevale questioned whether a test-optional policy necessarily increases diversity. “It gives the college more freedom to do whatever they want, and at the moment, what they want is full tuition,” he said, referring to those students who pay full price and get no financial aid. Many experts believe the pandemic-caused recession is going to cause a big financial hit to colleges and universities across the country, as states slash spending and students defer their schooling.
Whitman College, a private liberal-arts college in Walla Walla, went test-optional in 2016 and has seen a small but steady increase in its enrollment of students of color, said Adam Miller, director of admission for the college. In 2019, the school’s enrollment of students of color was 32.9%, including international students. That’s an improvement since 2016, when the number was 25.4%
“We don’t know that it’s causation,” Miller said. “But certainly, one of the reasons we went test-optional is that we wanted to have an admission process that would increase access for really great students that historically are underrepresented.” The highly selective college was concerned that the high average SAT scores of admitted students, reported in publications such as U.S. News & World Report, dissuaded some students from applying.
On average, about one-quarter of students who apply to Whitman do not submit test scores, he said.
Schaeffer, with FairTest, said that going test-optional is not a silver bullet; universities that want to help solve the problem of access and equity should also be prepared to increase outreach into lower-income schools, offer more financial aid and uncouple test scores from financial aid decisions.
One longtime local educator and critic of the SAT and ACT was thrilled by the decision.
“It’s truly wonderful news, not just for students in our region, but for kids all over the country,” said David Quinn, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at Edmonds Woodway High School and a longtime critic of the tests. “I applaud the leaders at UW for putting kids first.”