At Test-Optional Colleges, Students Surpass the Scores They Didn’t Submit

At nearly three dozen colleges that do not require applicants to take the ACT or SAT, researchers have found only “trivial differences” between the long-term performance of college students who submitted test scores and those who did not.

According to a report released on Tuesday, the cumulative grade-point averages of non-submitters was .05 lower than of submitters (2.83 compared with 2.88). The difference in their graduation rates: 0.6 percent.

The report (“Defining Promise: Optional Standardized-Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions”) is based on an unprecedented study of test-optional policies at 33 private and public institutions over eight years. Drawn from the records of nearly 123,000 students and alumni at a broad array of colleges, the findings provide new insights into the viability of test-optional policies at a time when many admissions officials are confronting major demographic shifts.

Those shifts include a sharp increase in first-generation and low-income students, who are much less likely than their affluent peers to have high ACT and SAT scores. The report suggests that low test scores sell many qualified students short: “In a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are out-performing their standardized testing.”

Researchers found that students with strong high-school grade-point averages typically performed well in college, even if they had low test scores. Students with weak high-school grade-point averages and higher test scores generally earned lower grades in college.

The report also describes the characteristics of applicants who did not submit test scores. Such students, the report says, are more likely than those who send scores to be female, nonwhite, and recipients of federal Pell Grants, a sign of financial need. They were also more likely to have a learning disability and, at private colleges, to apply for early decision.

One intriguing finding: At both private and public institutions, students in high- and low-income families frequently choose not to submit scores. For some colleges, waiving test requirements might help enrollment managers balance competing goals. By attracting more needy students, test-optional policies create financial obligations for colleges, the report says, yet “a significant pool of non-submitters not asking for financial aid helps balance institutional budgets.”

One author of the report was William C. Hiss, a former dean of admissions and financial aid at Bates College, which dropped its testing requirement in 1984. When Bates released findings from a 20-year study of its test-optional policy, in 2004, Mr. Hiss described how the change had helped the college enroll more-diverse classes.

“The large social-ethics piece in all this,” he told The Chronicle that year, “is whether the testing is truncating pools of applicants who would be successful if admitted.”

Ten years later, the same question is posed in the report’s conclusion, which offers a resounding “yes.”

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