RICHMOND — The University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Norfolk State University are among the dozens of schools in the commonwealth that have changed their policies to relax admissions exams requirements.
The test-optional trend is growing as more than 1,800 accredited, four-year colleges and universities nationally have committed to offering ACT/SAT optional or test-free testing policies for fall 2023 applicants, said Harry Feder, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which promotes the fair and reasonable assessment of educators, students and school systems.
“I think it’s a recognition by four-year institutions that they don’t get that much additional benefit from administering this test,” Feder said.
FairTest has been tracking the trend as the number of test takers declines.
In Virginia, 194,909 test takers completed the SAT or a PSAT‐related assessment in 2022, below the 238,500 test takers recorded in 2019.
ACT test-taking also has declined in Virginia to 9% in 2022 compared to 21% in 2019.
Feder said schools that have instituted test-optional policies are seeing an increase in applications and minority applicants.
According to the American Educational Research Journal, one of the key findings from a study of nearly 100 private institutions is that the policy change was connected to a 10 to 12% increase in enrollment of first-time Black, Latinx and Native students, and a 6 to 8% increase in enrollment of first-time students who were women.
Feder also said taking away the admissions exams remove the need for students to be coached and prepared for a test with “absolutely no educational value.”
A pandemic turning point
Colleges and universities for years faced criticism over their admission processes, but the pandemic was a turning point.
After a year or more of learning loss, low-income students and some students of color were scoring low on admission exams and being rejected by colleges despite having performed well in school.
Facing criticism for turning away students on the basis of ACT and SAT scores, colleges began taking a more holistic look at applicants, said Joe DeFilippo, director of academic affairs for the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia.
But the pandemic wasn’t the only factor, he said, noting that studies have shown there will be fewer high school graduates over the next decade and competition is increasing from out-of-state institutions.
“Colleges were a little more desperate for enrollment, and I think that accelerated the thinking of ‘what do we get out of these standardized tests anyway,’” DeFilippo said.
James Madison University changed its admissions exams policies before the pandemic after finding that admissions scores were not a consistent factor in predicting potential academic success, according to Director of Admissions Melinda Wood.
Instead, the admissions exams were potential barriers for prospective students to consider the university.
She said grades in core courses were more relevant for identifying potential academic success. The institution decided to become test-optional in 2018.
“The move to test-optional opened doors for students who may not have otherwise considered applying to JMU,” Wood said.
Since JMU adopted the policy, she said fewer students have elected to submit test scores for consideration. The director said 27% of this year’s applicants provided a test score with their application materials.
Northern Virginia Community College does not require admissions exams, but instead encourages students to seek testing options they see fit for various class levels.
NOVA said admissions exams, including the SAT and ACT, are applied to assess college readiness instead of determining college acceptance. The General Education Development and Virginia Placement Test are other placement options.
“NOVA is an open access institution, which means any person 18 years of age or older who holds a high school diploma or equivalent can enroll in classes,” the school wrote. “We’re proud to offer equitable access to our associate degree and certificate programs.”
Members of the higher education community recommend students research admissions requirements because they vary between colleges.
For example, if a student’s grade point average or class rank meets the minimum requirements at some schools, then SAT or ACT scores are not required to be submitted. Homeschooled or international students, however, are required to take admissions exams regardless of their GPA.
Challenges still loom
Higher education institutions have studied the impact of test-optional policies.
Kelly Slay, an assistant professor of higher education and public policy at Vanderbilt Peabody College, researched how the changes have affected admission officers, who told Slay they are finding it difficult to place students without scores from admissions exams.
Slay did not respond to a request for comment but told the Hechinger Report that admission officers described the experience as “chaotic” and “stressful.”
“One of our key findings were the tensions that were emerging around these test optional policies,” Slay told the Hechinger Report. “There’s a struggle on how to implement them.”
Feder said there are other ways to determine a student’s acceptance based on his conversations with admission officers. K-12 assessments, interviews and extracurricular activities are some ways schools look beyond exam results.
“I don’t think they’re a great reflection of what students are ready for and what they’ve already studied because, for one, it’s easy to bomb a test, no matter how much you’ve studied,” said Madison Grace, a homeschooled student in Alexandria.
Grace, who wants to be a teacher at a time when Virginia is exploring ways to hire more educators amid a teacher shortage, found a school that meets her requirements of affordability and proximity, but traveling to take in-person tests remains a challenge.
The 18-year-old has two blind parents, is fearful of contracting the coronavirus while living with family members who are immunocompromised and suffers from a chronic pain disorder known as fibromyalgia while walking on a limited basis with a cane.
Grace said it’s a challenge for students such as herself to be admitted into college.
“If it were easier to get into college, we’d all like to be teachers and we’d love to do that,” Grace said. “It would mean the world to me if some of those schools dropped those testing requirements because they’ve been a hurdle for a lot of marginalized students like myself for years.”
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