One admissions officer at a large public university described how optional admissions had fueled several disagreements in his office. A third application reader was often called in to break a tie when one staff member said “yes” and the other said “no.” Without SAT and ACT scores, he explained, the job of admitting students became more subjective and time-consuming. “I feel like everyone who reviews the applications has their own view or opinion,” he said.
This chilling anecdote comes from a research project led by Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, who conducted in-depth interviews with admissions officers in 2022 to understand how the elimination of SAT and ACT testing requirements is playing out inside colleges. and universities. According to Slay, admissions officers often described a “chaotic” and “stressful” process in which they had no clear instructions on how to select students without test scores. Admissions officers at select colleges were also “overwhelmed” by the number of applicants triggered by the admissions test policies.
“One of our key findings was the tensions that arose around these optional testing policies,” Slay said. “There is a struggle on how to implement them.”
Slay’s work gives us a rare, unspoiled glimpse into college admissions offices. This is especially important now that there is a college admissions case currently before the Supreme Court that could overturn affirmative action, a practice that favors groups that have been discriminated against. As colleges experiment with alternative solutions, these interviews help shed light on why elective policies have not been helpful in increasing diversity on college campuses.
Previous quantitative studies have shown that the test-choice movement, which has spread to more than 1,700 colleges, has failed to significantly increase the proportion of low-income or black students. For example, one study published in 2021 found that the proportion of black, Hispanic, and Native American students increased by just 1 percentage point at about 100 colleges and universities that adopted the policy between 2005-06 and 2015- 16. A separate study of a group of selective liberal arts colleges that adopted an elective policy before 2011 found no improvement in diversity on those campuses.
Before the pandemic, the shift to optional test enrollment was gaining momentum as concerns grew that wealthier students could hire tutors, retake tests and achieve higher scores. Other critics said the paperwork to waive testing fees was a barrier for many low-income students. Then, during the pandemic, it became nearly impossible for students to take the exams, and the vast majority of colleges eliminated testing requirements. Some were later restored, but many were not.
Slay’s research is ongoing, and she presented her preliminary findings at the Association for Education Finance and Policy’s 2022 annual conference. When I interviewed her in October 2022, she and her research team had interviewed 22 admissions officers from 16 colleges and universities. All were four-year institutions, but ranged from public to private, large to small, and religious to non-religious. Four colleges dropped testing requirements in the years before the pandemic, and the remaining 12 did so during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, colleges that had been administering admissions tests during the pandemic were suddenly scrambling to decide how to review applications without standardized tests. But the researchers found that even colleges that had years of experience with optional admissions were still working out the details of how to implement it.
Admissions officials worried that their colleges were replacing standardized tests with metrics that were even more biased toward wealthier and white students, such as letters of recommendation and expensive extracurricular activities. One college purchased a data service that ranked high schools and factored those high school rankings into each application. Students from disadvantaged high schools received a lower ranking, the admissions officer explained. It was not a fair process.
Many admissions officers said they struggled with how to fairly select applicants and didn’t know how to weigh applications with test scores versus those without. “I think that students who score well on tests still have that advantage, especially when you have a student who scores well on tests versus a student who doesn’t score well and it’s all about academics more or less worse. same,” the admissions officer told Slay.
“It’s really hard to ignore test scores when you’ve been so trained in reviewing applications and thinking about merit,” Slay said. “If a standardized test is on file, it can still bias you in ways you don’t realize. This is anchoring bias.”
Admissions officers also described how they struggled to answer a common but basic question: Are you really test-optional? The students wanted to know if they would have an advantage if they submitted the test score. Slay said admissions officers wish they had better guidance on how to answer that question. Because college entrance exam scores could also be used to determine certain scholarships and course placements once admitted, admissions officers found it hard to say the test wasn’t already relevant.
A common complaint was heavy loads. College admissions officers said they spend more time on each application to be diligent. In addition, application volumes have increased “significantly” at select schools, Slay said. Meanwhile, many offices have lost staff during COVID. Some employees quit due to the strong labor market. Budget cuts at some schools have led to layoffs and furloughs. Slay said some admissions offices operate with a “skeleton” staff.
The stress and pressure of understaffing and confusion can affect anyone’s decision making. The conditions were ripe for the reinforcement of implicit biases—the very opposite of the intent of the test’s selection policy.
Slay is hearing from colleges that elective policies have increased the diversity of applicants, but that may not translate into a more diverse student body.
“One of the things we’ve found is that the optional test doesn’t translate into an increase in diversity — racial or socioeconomic diversity,” Slay said. “If we haven’t figured out how to screen students from diverse backgrounds who come from schools where they may not have the same access to AP or IB courses, that could mean those students still won’t be accepted.”
This optional trial enrollment story was written and produced by Jill Barshay The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent journalism organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger Newsletter.