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Report: Test-Optional Trends in Pandemic Year for College Admissions

Claudia Marroquin, Bowdoin College’s Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid A recent report from Common App studied applicant trends among its member institutions that were test-optional during the 2020-21 application cycle, finding a dramatic drop this past year in those who sent admissions offices scores. Yet applicants’ test reporting behaviors varied across backgrounds.

As many colleges continue test-optional policies this coming application cycle with the pandemic far from over, some admissions and higher education experts point out that test scores often act as barriers for underrepresented, first-generation, and/or low-income students.

“In general, I applaud this move away from requiring standardized tests,” said Dr. Xueli Wang, the Barbara and Glenn Thompson professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Because research has repeatedly shown that the predicted value of these tests is very limited and is very much based on who has access to test prep. Or more deeply, who has access to better education opportunities all the way from Pre-K to postsecondary and beyond—rather than assessing the student’s capacity for learning.”

The Common Application, or Common App, is a nonprofit membership organization that aims to simplify the college admissions process with more than 900 member institutions, both public and private. This past year, 89% of Common App members did not require test scores, which marked a steep increase compared to the year prior when only a third were test-optional.

“This was a year where for the first time, we could observe an environment where test scores were not a requirement at most institutions,” said Dr. Preston Magouirk, a data scientist at Common App and one of the report’s co-authors. “But there were so many factors at work with the pandemic that we can’t say this report was about test-optional policies overall. We were looking at these trends specifically in a highly turbulent year.”

The report found that 43% of applicants overall shared their test scores in 2020-21 compared to 77% the year before and 73% in 2018-19. Yet the decline in submitting test scores was steeper for some groups. For instance, first-generation or underrepresented minority students were less likely to report their scores than students who did not share these identities. Also, their rates of score reporting dropped more dramatically compared to the year before.

“It was striking to see the gap across different student subgroups,” said Magouirk.

Dr. Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University and author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform , stressed the importance of understanding the history of standardized testing versus its controversial reality today. The SAT had been designed decades ago to initially help people who did not traditionally have access to college get an education and enter the middle class or beyond. But as Wang noted, studies have shown that not to be the case anymore.

“I think these tests have become one more tool in a competitive game to gain access to the top universities,” said Neem. “While we could say one point of college […]

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