For 18-year-old Enrique Mora, a strong SAT score was supposed to be among the high-stakes barometers that would help determine how he’d spend life after high school.
Mora, a Port Angeles High School senior, knew that to get into a good college, he needed to take advanced courses and score well on a standardized test. So he collected free test-prep materials and studied hard.
But last fall, when standardized testing sites were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mora panicked. He hadn’t yet taken the SAT, which is usually required to get into the University of Washington, his top pick. He started thinking about community college. And he remembered conversations he’d had with military recruiters, who’d encouraged him to enlist.
Then, good news: He learned after applying to the UW that the university would not require a standardized test score for admission for the incoming freshman class of 2021.
On Tuesday, that policy became permanent at all of Washington’s public four-year institutions.
Beginning in fall 2021, UW, Washington State University, Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, The Evergreen State College and Western Washington University will become permanently “test-optional.” Students can submit scores, but they won’t be penalized during the admissions process if they don’t; admissions officers say a high score might benefit a student who wouldn’t otherwise be offered admission, but typically scores won’t be used. And scores won’t determine students’ ability to earn scholarships or placement in university honors programs.
The policy change follows similar moves by public universities in Oregon, California and many other public and private colleges nationwide, and comes at the same time that UW announced that nearly 49,000 students applied for admission next school year, the biggest applicant pool ever.
The pandemic made taking these tests practically impossible, but permanently ending testing requirements signals a profound shift in how universities think about who to admit, experts say.
“Washington is doing it now, which is terrific,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University and the author of a higher education blog that focuses on data and university policies. “Essentially [along] the whole West Coast you don’t need standardized tests to apply to public universities.”
For decades, high-stakes tests have been regarded as impartial indicators of students’ academic abilities. A high score could encourage them to apply to a wider selection of colleges — or nix their shot at economic or social mobility. But university admissions’ officers and academics have increasingly questioned the utility of these scores. Data suggests that a student’s GPA or entire academic record are better predictors than standardized tests of how well they’ll fare in college.
And standardized tests aren’t the great equalizers they’re purported to be, several experts say. A stellar score might reflect a student’s innate academic talents — or, it might demonstrate the time and money they had to inject into rigorous test prep. A low score might indicate testing anxiety. Or for a student learning English, it might show that their language skills are still emerging.
“We believe it would be better for our applicants to spend all that extra time studying for their classes or doing coursework, or maybe take an additional class rather than spend extra time studying for this test,” which, in the scheme of a person’s life, amounts to only a “few hours on a particular day,” said Paul Seegert, director of admissions at UW.
Mora, the eldest of five siblings, “bounced around a lot” in the years after his parents moved the family from Idaho to Washington when he was about 13. As a freshman in high school, he worked as a dishwasher and server. He thought: “If I want to do something else other than this, I have to work for it. So studying is a priority.”
His parents, who both dropped out of high school but later earned GEDs, are his biggest cheerleaders. When Mora weighed a future in the military, he said, “My father talked me out of it, saying he could support me if I decided to go to college.”
Mora knew financing college would be difficult for his family; military recruiters told him he’d rack up lots of debt. But he worked on checking all the boxes he could, like getting good grades and applying for scholarships.
When application season began in the fall, Mora crossed his fingers and applied to UW without submitting an SAT score. He hoped he could eventually take the test.
“When I did see that the SAT was optional it was a relief,” he said. And thankfully, he said, he was accepted.
UW offered him direct admission to the university’s College of Engineering, and Mora was awarded tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships. College is not only possible for Mora — it will be affordable.
The new test optional policies will be “huge” for students like Mora, said Rosalynn Guillen, who works with Mora and other students as a college-completion coach at the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that helps first generation, low-income students finish high school and college.
“Not having to worry about that [test] is a huge barrier lifted so they can focus on their [college] recommendations, their community service, all the other things that give more light into what kind of student they will be at the institution they choose to go to,” she said.
Making college more accessible
In the mid-2010s, the University of Puget Sound was the first Washington university to go test-optional. An enrollment working group looked at the university’s admissions policies and decided that doing away with the requirement would make the college more accessible, particularly for those from low-income backgrounds and students of color.
Six years later, the university is seeing incremental progress: about 28% of first-year students are students of color, up from 20.4% in the year before the test-optional policy went in place.
Standardized tests can pose actual barriers to admission, said Matt Boyce, vice president for enrollment at the university. But “sometimes it’s just perception,” he said, suggesting that having a score requirement might dissuade some students from applying altogether.
The university’s applicant pool has become more diverse over time, he said. But Boyce cautions against the idea that test-optional policies are a silver bullet: The fact that students of more varied backgrounds are applying could be chalked up to a collection of policy changes the university made around the same time it made test scores optional, he said.
“Solely making a decision to make an institution test-optional is not going to move the needle,” he said. It “doesn’t instantaneously make students who have been traditionally marginalized and underserved and underrepresented suddenly feel like they are able to gain access and become part of those institutions.”
It’s difficult to predict how the test-optional policy changes affect who applies to Washington’s public colleges, and who is ultimately accepted and enrolled. Studies on test-optional policies have shown mixed results. April research involving nearly 100 private schools suggests that test-optional policies did little to improve equity in admissions, in line with some prior studies. But the largest study to date has found the opposite.
At UW, test scores were one piece of a “holistic review” that admissions officers use. Admissions decisions were made using “the full academic picture, not just strictly GPA and test scores,” said David Sundine, UW’s associate director of admissions for operations, who oversees holistic review at the university. The school also looks at whether students improve over time, and if they’ve challenged themselves. Because of this, he said, just removing test scores “hasn’t changed our work a whole lot.”
The change is backed up by the university’s data: Over time, the SAT’s value has become weaker and weaker at predicting first-year students’ performance. “This was a change that was overdue, quite frankly,” Sundine said.
Seegert, at UW, said he hopes that making test scores optional will encourage students who might not have applied to consider doing so. But the pandemic upended many aspects of young people’s lives, including their family responsibilities or ability to pay for college, which will make it difficult to parse out those factors from the effect of test-optional policies in future years.
Said Seegert: “That is going to be really difficult to try to determine.”