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Growing number of college admissions going 'test optional' for SAT, ACT exams

For many high school students, taking standardized tests is a right of passage – and, in some cases, necessary to get into college. The pandemic upended that, though, and now a growing number of higher education institutions are reconsidering just how useful those tests really are.
After examining six years of data from a pilot program at the school, 80% of Bryn Mawr College’s faculty voted to make “test optional” a permanent policy in the admissions process.
Some critics of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT argue that going to “test optional” in the college admissions process can even the playing field for applicants.
The number of students taking the SAT rose from 1.5 million students in 2021 to 1.7 million in 2022, according to the nonprofit College Board, which administers the test.
Posted at 12:50 PM, Mar 08, 2023

BRYN MAWR, Pa. — On the bucolic campus of Bryn Mawr College, a liberal arts college of 1,400 students outside Philadelphia, competition for admission is fierce.

“We look at our applicants from a holistic review,” said Cheryl Lynn Horsey, chief enrollment officer and acting dean of the undergraduate college.

In 2015, Bryn Mawr decided to try a six-year experiment.

“We did that so that we would have some real data,” she said.

Bryn Mawr’s pilot program made standardized tests, like the SAT or ACT, optional for applicants in the U.S.

“Underrepresented groups, such as African American, Hispanic, Latinx, Pacific Islander and Native American—they weren't necessarily even looking at our schools because they felt like they wouldn't get in,” Horsey said, “and there is a lot of data that shows that these school students from under-resourced schools don't do as well in standardized tests.”

After examining six years of data from the pilot program, 80% of the college’s faculty voted to make the “test-optional” policy permanent.

“It did increase our applicant pool,” Horsey said. “We did find that in terms of first-year retention rates - meaning the students that returned to college after their first year - we found that there was no significant, statistically significant, difference between test submitters and test optional students.”

They found no real difference in four-year graduation rates, either.

Bryn Mawr joined a growing number colleges and universities no longer requiring the SAT or ACT for admission.

“A lot of colleges moved to ‘test optional’ policies because of that, even in the pandemic,” said Jared Bass, with the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “That number went up from just north of 1,000 to now north of 1,800.”

Bass and a team of researchers studied the effect of those standardized tests.

“Really, what it is correlated with is economic income or like income, specifically. So, if you can afford test prep services, which are costly, they teach you how to take the test and do well on the test - then you're going to do well on the test,” Bass said. “So, we were seeing this match-up between resources and test scores.”

When it comes to the $55 SAT and the $60 ACT, Bass said going to “test-optional” can even the playing field in the admissions process.

“You're giving people who don't have those resources or come from low-income families a better chance to represent themselves,” he said. “So, the important thing to remember is that it's not like people were just taking the SAT or ACT and that was it - you still have to write a personal essay, you still have to have a strong high school GPA.”

The number of students taking the SAT rose from 1.5 million students in 2021 to 1.7 million in 2022, according to the nonprofit College Board, which administers the test.

Scripps News requested an interview with them, but they provided a statement instead, saying, “…when surveyed, more than 80% of students say they want the opportunity to submit their SAT scores to colleges. That is because the SAT allows students — regardless of where they go to high school — to be seen by colleges and scholarship providers.”

Back at Bryn Mawr, there does not appear to be any regrets about going “test optional.”

“I think we've been very fortunate and very forward-thinking,” Horsey said.

Whether any other colleges follow their lead remains to be seen.