ACT admits that test-optional admissions isn’t going away

Janet Godwin, ACT’s CEO, published a blog post [1] Thursday that admitted that test-optional admissions policies are likely here to stay.

“It is somewhat unlikely that institutions who adopted temporary or pilot test use policies in response to COVID will return to test-required in the near term,” she wrote.

Those words are not a surprise to the hundreds of colleges that have gone test optional in the last year, as the pandemic made it much more difficult to take the ACT (or the SAT). But the acknowledgment is a stark concession by the testing company that the current trend lines will not be reversing any time soon.

Godwin said the analysis was based on a report that ACT commissioned from EY-Parthenon, which conducts a lot of work in higher education. Godwin said it “wanted to learn from our colleagues in higher education about how they are using ACT test data for admissions, what they value as they seek to evaluate applicants, and how ACT can better work alongside them to ensure a fair and equitable testing and admissions process.”

She said the growth in test-optional policies was steady prior to March 2020, but “the global pandemic resulted in an abrupt and significant spike in test optional policy adoption.”

These “temporary COVID-driven policy changes were most often made abruptly and in response to the immediate pressures presented by the pandemic,” she said. “These adoptions were much less deliberate than test optional policy adoptions seen before March of 2020.”

The report said that test-blind admissions (in which colleges will not look at test scores prior to admission or consider them to determine acceptance of applicants) is unlikely to spread, although some colleges — most notably those that are part of the University of California system — have embraced it.

“The research suggests that rapid test blind expansion is quite unlikely. Schools regard test score data as too useful to abandon altogether, and they report that they feel students should be allowed to submit test scores if they wish to do so,” Godwin wrote.

The colleges that still do look at test scores said they were using them in admissions decisions “despite the 20 to 30 percent decrease in students sending test scores.”

“Schools report increased difficulty in evaluating entering students, though the most pronounced pain point relates to scholarship awarding processes,” Godwin wrote.

Godwin closed her blog post by saying, “We know we can’t go back to the way we did things before the pandemic. We must learn from this watershed moment, and we must all come together to fight for fairness for all students, to give them a world where they can realize their full potential. I’m looking forward to the work we will do together.”

In the full report, which ACT released to Inside Higher Ed, ACT estimated that half of four-year colleges were test optional before the pandemic, and that another 30 percent transitioned to test optional during the pandemic.

“Test-optional institutions are unlikely to return to test-required, although COVID-driven institutions note uncertainty in determining future policies,” the report says. The key will be the first class being admitted now without required tests, it says.

“We, along with our faculty, are watching our results for this year closely,” an unnamed public college admissions official says in the report. “We feel good, but we may balk at the results and go right back to requiring tests.”

And the report notes that “many institutions have implemented test-optional policies without encountering significant pain points, particularly those that became test-optional prior to COVID-19.”

An unnamed private college admissions official quoted in the report supported that view.

“We did years of research and went around to every group of stakeholders to build up consensus on campus,” the official says. “Over time, we have found that you can still make selective admissions decisions and protect admission and yield profiles while being test-optional.”

A College Board spokesman said via email that the organization has supported flexibility in admissions during the pandemic.

“That flexibility must extend to all student achievements, ranging from schoolwork to extracurricular activities, because students are living in more challenging and changes circumstances than ever,” the spokesman said. “Never has it been more important for admissions officers to look at students’ achievement in context.”

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said, “ACT’s latest report accurately forecasts that a large majority of U.S. colleges and universities will remain ACT/SAT-optional for the foreseeable future.”

He noted that FairTest research [2] has determined that at least 1,360 four-year institutions “have already announced that they will not require fall 2022 applicants to submit standardized exam results before admissions decisions are made. As has always been the case, schools that experiment with test-optional admissions almost always keep the policy in place — it is a win-win for schools and students.”

There were 1,070 colleges that were test optional before the pandemic. Schaeffer said, “We can estimate that about half of the 660 institutions suspending the test over the past year have extended ACT/SAT-optional admissions for at least another year. Based on conversations with higher education leaders, we expect that number to grow significantly before the fall 2022 admissions season opens.”