Friday, July 19College Admissions News

Research Underway by Gates Foundation Partners to Better Understand Test-Optional Admission


NACAC, in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several other organizations, is carefully exploring admission policies and practices in an increasingly test-optional or test-free environment. In a previous post, we provided an overview of the project, which is grounded in the work that the Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students completed in 2021.

“The task force observed that if standardized testing perpetuates or worsens inequities, and if it is to remain a part of the undergraduate admission process at all, it must receive the most stringent of reviews,” according to the task force’s report on standardized testing.

As an extension of this thinking, the committee recommended that colleges’ decisions about their test policies should “include a plan for frequent reviews.” The 2021 task force also noted that simply going test-optional or test-free will not in and of itself universally improve equity. As colleges navigate the immediate future of test-optional and test-free admission, in addition to the broader equity considerations related to college admission, they must ensure that historically marginalized perspectives are front-and-center as admission offices craft policies to adapt to a new legal and political landscape.

NACAC’s role in facilitating conversation about equitable admission practices in the current admission context is to ensure careful examination of admission policies and practices, particularly as it applies to improving equity outcomes for college access.

Other partners in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project, and their work, include:

Equity Research Cooperative (EqRC): The Equity Research Cooperative is a strategic consulting collective that works with campus and community organizations to measure, analyze, and prescribe interventions that advance their social, economic, and political goals. EqRC is studying the implications of equity in admission for historically excluded populations. EqRC will address the underpinnings and implications of test-optional admission, focusing on the student perspective and experience, as well as other admission practices as they intersect with the experiences of historically excluded students.

University of Maryland-led Project: A team lead by OiYan Poon and Julie Park at the University of Maryland is gathering data to document experiences and outcomes associated with test-optional admission and other admission practices. What was the impact of testing policies on admission/enrollment outcomes for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students during the fall 2020 cycle? How and why did institutions decide whether to go test-optional (and, if so, in what form)? How were test-optional policies implemented? How were testing policy changes communicated to prospective applicants and counselors? How did institutions use test scores (if received) and other application materials in their admission reading and class-shaping practices? How do admission professionals view the shift to test-optional or test-free policies? How do reported extracurriculars vary across race and socioeconomic status? How do letter characteristics and length vary across race and SES? What differences persist when controlling for key background and school characteristics?

Second Chance Alliance/From Prison Cells to PhD: Two organizations dedicated to serving justice-involved individuals as they pursue higher education, the Second Chance Alliance and Prison to PhD, will focus on identifying barriers and best practices with respect to serving this important population. What impact do test-optional admission policies have on Black, Latino, and Indigenous justice-impacted students and their decisions to apply to and enroll in institutions of a particular sector? How do Black, Latino, and Indigenous justice-impacted students perceive test-optional policies at higher education institutions? What are their experiences in applying to, or considering applying to, higher education institutions? How do they describe the impact of test-optional policies? Are institutions that have implemented test-optional policies making any specific changes to practices and policies that create pathways for justice-impacted student enrollment? Are institutions with test-optional policies providing adequate support for their BIPOC justice-impacted students?

California State University-San Marcos: The California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (CICSC) at California State University-San Marcos will study the impact of test-optional policies and practices on American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) students. How are parents/families and AIAN students informed about test-optional admission policies? What are the perceptions and beliefs of parents/families and AIAN students about test-optional policies? Have test-optional policies resulted in increased AIAN student interest, school choices, and applications to colleges and universities? Has the use of test-optional admission policies resulted in an increase of AIAN students admitted and attending colleges and universities?

Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit: A team at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is focusing on the impact of new admission policies on undocumented students. In what ways have practitioners in high schools (e.g., school counselors, college preparatory staff, and more) responded to test-optional and test-blind policies regarding undocumented students? How have institutional agents at bachelor’s granting institutions, particularly at highly selective institutions, responded to undocumented student applicants after the implementation of test-optional admission policies? In what ways have undocumented students and their families responded to test-optional policies for higher education institutions? How have undocumented students been advised throughout the college application during the transition to test-optional policies?

History Shows Test Scores Aren’t Necessarily Predictive of College Success
Decades of research and practice show that admission test scores cannot and should not be considered an ironclad indicator of potential for success in postsecondary education. However, popular perceptions of standardized admission testing can make a change in mindset difficult, particularly for those who are heavily vested in the idea that admission test scores produce definitive, comprehensive assessments of merit.

One original purpose of standardized admission tests was to help colleges find the “jewels in the rough”— students from the vast network of public and private schools nationwide with varying grading systems. It’s been observed, though, that such a purpose has long since become obsolete, as curricula across the country have become more aligned and the number of students taking the tests has grown.

A 2008 NACAC commission on standardized testing encouraged institutions “to consider dropping the admission test requirements if it is determined that the predictive utility of the test or the admission policies of the institution (such as open access) support that decision and if the institution believes that standardized test results would not be necessary for other reasons such as course placement, advising, or research.”

Importantly, the commission also pointed out that decades of research indicated that admission test scores tended to amplify, rather than ameliorate, differences based on socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity. As a result, the commission encouraged colleges to carefully examine the potential distorting effects of admission tests.

Test Scores Aren’t Necessarily Predictive of Success in College
The 2008 commission also made two important observations about standardized admission tests. First, that predictive power of admission test scores was marginal when combined with high school grades, which decades of research shows are the single-most indicative factor of student success in the admission process. More importantly, all admission factors combined still tell us relatively little about why some students graduate from college and others don’t. A large number of non-academic factors, such as income level, exert a powerful influence on student persistence.

Second, many colleges were not able to conduct the research necessary to determine whether test scores added to their knowledge of student success at the institution. A 2016 NACAC study confirmed that of the institutions that required admission test scores at the time, only about half (51 percent) conducted research to understand the influence of those scores in their students’ persistence at the institution.

A later study by Bill Hiss and Valerie Franks analyzed student graduation and GPA data at more than 30 test-optional postsecondary institutions. They found that there were no significant differences in graduation rates or GPAs at these institutions between those who submitted tests and those who didn’t. Once again, the notion that test scores are essential for admission offices to craft qualified classes is incorrect. Moreover, many people and institutions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, believe in the myth that test scores tell us something sacred about student qualifications. They don’t — test scores can augment admission considerations, but are not determinant of merit.

As more findings and deliverables come to fruition from the Gates Foundation project and its partners, NACAC will ensure it is shared with members and college admission counseling professionals.

David Hawkins is NACAC’s chief education and policy officer. You can reach him at