The Facts About Test-Optional Policies
The Facts About Test-Optional PoliciesCollege Board Communications
First administered in 1926, the SAT was created to democratize access to higher education and to give all students a chance to go to college. Ninety years later, SAT scores are accepted by all U.S. colleges.
Even schools identified as SAT optional use SAT scores for admission decisions when students submit them, and for making decisions about course placement, academic counseling, and scholarship and merit aid.
The Best Predictors of College Success Are SAT Scores Combined with High School Grades
When it comes to making college admission decisions, the more information the better.
Research consistently finds the SAT to be a valid and reliable predictor of college outcomes, including grade point average, retention, and completion. In 2016, with the help of colleges and universities, the College Board completed a predictive validity study to see how well the new SAT predicts first-year success in college. The findings matched what colleges have seen for years: SAT scores, in conjunction with high school grades, are the strongest predictors overall.
Just as the SAT alone shouldn’t be used to make admission decisions, neither should grade point average. High school grades aren’t objective measures—they’re subject to variables like school demographics, teacher discretion, and state and district standards. And they’re increasingly subject to inflation. Since the late 1990s, the number of SAT test takers with an A average has gone from 39% to 47%, despite fairly flat SAT scores over this period.
This trend has surfaced in public and private schools alike. Evidence suggests grade inflation is more pronounced in private schools and varies significantly by race.
When subjectivity is unchecked, bias can go unchecked. The SAT and high school GPA are reciprocal checks and balances for each other.
Test-Optional Policies Don’t Create Diverse Campuses
There’s little evidence that test-optional policies increase diversity. Anecdotal accounts show such policies can increase the number and/or diversity of applicants, but not of admitted students.
A 2015 peer-reviewed study by researchers at the University of Georgia and College Transitions LLC found that test-optional admission policies don’t contribute to increased socioeconomic and racial diversity on college campuses. In fact, the study authors also found that colleges enrolled fewer Pell-eligible and minority students than similar test-requiring schools after they adopted these policies. They concluded: “In sum, findings from our analyses indicate that test-optional policies enhance the appearance of selectivity, rather than the diversity, of adopting institutions.”
A 2014 Harvard dissertation evaluated the effects of Smith College’s test-optional decision over six years, and found that, during that time, black women were less likely and white women were more likely to apply to Smith. The author of the study concluded that simply introducing a test-optional policy doesn’t lead to greater diversity.
Admission Policies Now and in the Future
The vast majority of U.S. colleges require SAT scores as part of the application process, and all of them accept scores.
This fact has been obscured by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) through an online list, which currently cites 900 schools that “do not use ACT/SAT scores to admit substantial numbers of students into bachelor-degree programs.” A closer look suggests the number is much smaller:
- About 115 are for-profit schools, like the Academy of Couture Art, which has 17 total students.
- About 230 are special focus schools, like the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.
- More than 70 are two-year or certificate schools, and an additional 315 are open-admission schools or schools that were never primary users of college entrance exams to begin with. Some schools don’t exist anymore, like Knoxville College, which lost accreditation in 1997 and has since stopped operating.
After excluding these types of colleges (and those that require a college entrance exam for all but the highest performing students), only a small number of schools on this list —about 25%— prove to be true test-optional institutions for academic degree-seeking students.
It’s vital that institutions clearly communicate requirements for admission, program placement, and financial and merit aid so that students fully understand them. The FairTest list undermines this imperative.
As admission policies evolve, so too do the College Board’s programs and services. Together with our partners in higher education we aim to make the admission process as equitable and efficient as possible, with student success at the heart of our collective efforts. Institutions want to do better at recruiting and admitting a diverse student body; we are committed to helping them.
A note to reporters: For inquiries about test-optional policies, please contact the College Board Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-713-8052.