This University Piloted Test-Optional Admissions. That Didn’t Last.
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On May 27, 2021, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville said it would continue a pilot program that allowed prospective students to choose whether to submit standardized-test scores — a common Covid-era accommodation across higher ed.
In a statement at the time, university officials said they planned to continue the pilot, which began in July 2020, “for up to five more years.” They said they’d gather data and evaluate after each academic year, with the possibility that the program would be “refined or suspended.”
Less than a year later, Tennessee’s test-optional pilot has ended — even though the university’s data suggest that it was benefiting the institution.
The University of Tennessee system announced on Friday that applicants to the system’s institutions would once again have to submit SAT or ACT scores, starting with new students applying for the fall of 2023.
Why was the pilot program discontinued? A university spokesperson didn’t respond when asked on Monday.
In a statement, Randy Boyd, president of the Tennessee system, said that university officials had had “very thorough engagement” with the system’s Board of Trustees on the test-optional policy, which Boyd described as an “exception we made to our admissions practices for the last two years.”
“Based on our review and the thoughtful conversations at our recent board meetings, the campuses do not intend to bring forward any proposed revisions to the university’s admissions policies,” Boyd said.
The Tennessee system’s four undergraduate campuses presented to the Board of Trustees in February on how the test-optional pilot was going. Three of the four campuses reported that, based on their analyses, students’ high-school grade-point averages were a better predictor of retention and graduation than their ACT scores.
We had verifiable proof that test scores provided no real value as a predictor of student success.
At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, campus officials said they saw a record number of applicants after ACT scores were made optional, including an increase in students of color.
Across the system, officials reported that most applicants for admission in 2021 and 2022 still submitted test scores even though they weren’t required, with some variation across the campuses.
A Republican state lawmaker proposed a bill this year that would have required the submission of ACT or SAT scores by all applicants to the state’s four-year public colleges. The proposal is still in committee.
The Tennessee system’s decision to restore its testing requirement isn’t unprecedented. Public universities in Florida have continued to require standardized-test scores throughout the pandemic. The University System of Georgia suspended its requirement from 2020 to 2021, then brought it back for the spring semester of 2022. For the fall of 2022, some of the Georgia system’s colleges have gone test-optional again, with some conditions.
But many colleges across the nation continue to give prospective students the choice of whether to submit SAT or ACT scores with their applications. According to FairTest, an advocacy group for unbiased testing, over 1,800 four-year public colleges aren’t requiring standardized tests for the 2022-23 academic year. (In the Tennessee system, students who have been accepted for the 2022-23 year won’t have to submit test scores.)
“The unfortunate consequence of such an abrupt pivot is that the institution’s admission office, faculty, and administration, as well as future prospective students, will not have the benefit of an extended analysis of test-optional admission and outcomes, such as improved access and student success at the university,” David A. Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
“Institutions should give serious consideration to what the research tells them about any change of this magnitude, as test requirements impose significant costs and barriers on students from low-income backgrounds, as well as the high schools that serve them,” said Hawkins.
Some research has shown that test-optional admissions have benefits for colleges — including increasing the number of applicants, especially applicants from marginalized backgrounds.
“We had verifiable proof that test scores provided no real value as a predictor of student success,” wrote Andrew B. Palumbo, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in an email. WPI has been test-optional since 2007 after officials found no statistically significant difference in student-success rates — retention and graduation — between score submitters and non-score submitters. The institution is currently test-blind, meaning standardized-test scores aren’t considered in admission decisions at all, as part of an eight-year pilot program.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the ACT praised the University of Tennessee system’s decision and cited research suggesting that standardized-test scores, when combined with high-school GPA, are better predictors of college success as “an objective measure of postsecondary readiness.” A spokesperson for the College Board, which administers the SAT, did not respond to a request for comment.