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June 3, 2022
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Navigating Shifts in College Admissions Is an Equity Matter

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In education, we can’t stand still. The workforce increasingly demands employees to develop specialized skills and to think critically, problem solve, and meet evolving challenges—such as persistent racial and socioeconomic equity gaps and the effects of the pandemic—head-on. Helping students to prepare for this kind of environment demands constant change from educators and the policies that guide our work.
At the same time, educators at every level must evaluate any changes in education with an explicit focus on equity, especially on whether it lowers or presents new barriers to opportunity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Educators must consider the consequences of any dramatic change on a student’s broader educational journey—including the key transition point between high school and college. 

A Shift in Testing

Take the recent sea change in college admissions that has seen more than 1,600 colleges and universities make the SAT and ACT tests optional, or eliminate their use altogether. These shifts on testing—largely catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic—have led to increases in applications submitted by Black, Latino, Indigenous, and AAPI students, first-generation college students, and students who apply for and receive a fee waiver.
Why does this matter? By allowing students to apply for college without a test score, colleges have at least limited some structural barriers that disproportionately effect students of color and students from low-income backgrounds—limited college advisement, inequitable access to test prep and other academic supports, lack of transportation to testing sites, minimal financial support to re-take tests to improve scores—from factoring into the admissions equation. This seems like a positive change in light of evidence that points to high school GPA as a more reliable predictor of achievement and success in higher education for these student populations.
Indeed, preliminary research of these test-optional policies points to beneficial effects for students. A recent survey of more than 400 colleges and universities with test-optional admissions policies shows that applications and enrollments for students of color and low-income students have at least somewhat increased at many institutions, particularly at public institutions. Another study found a significant increase in full-time student retention from year one to year two.
However, test-optional policies have not yet evened the playing field completely, and areas of uncertainty and lack of clarity persist.
For example, not everyone is on board with the admissions-testing changes. Leaders at many institutions have expressed concern about their ability to fully evaluate students’ likelihood of success without test data—a view that leads students who submit test scores (who are more likely to live in affluent communities) to continue to have a leg up in admissions. One such school is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which recently announced that it would be reinstating the testing requirement after a two-year suspension. The rationale? “[MIT] cannot reliably predict students will do well at MIT unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors,” dean of admissions Stu Schmill said in a statement.
We believe this is a premature move to make, especially when the no-test policy, even while still so new, is pointing to signs that it’s making college more accessible for many students. It also adds to the complexity of the admissions landscape, which ultimately makes things harder for disadvantaged students.

Where Does This Leave High Schools?

Test-optional policies, student retention and completion problems, and other institutional factors that contribute to true postsecondary success are interwoven in a complex web that can be difficult for students to understand. As high school leaders and guidance counselors help students and families navigate the admissions process, they need more information about how these changes have affected their communities and impact racial and socioeconomic equity. Understanding the full effects of test-optional policies for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds will require examining college enrollment and success data disaggregated by these groups and engaging prospective students and families from these communities in understanding how these changes affect their college plans.

High school advisors can call on colleges and universities to communicate policies more clearly to their students and families so they are not left guessing.

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For instance, when colleges and universities have a test-optional approach (versus going test-blind, e.g. taking away the option to submit test scores altogether), it leaves the decision of whether or not to take the test to the students and their advisors. As early results show, more affluent students continue to double down on test preparation to boost their submitted scores in hopes that it will give them the competitive edge. And test scores still are often used as a filter for evaluating students for merit-based scholarships, honors program admission, and other specialized opportunities. For students experiencing inequitable access to resources and other structural barriers, these “options” can lead to confusion. Which colleges require test scores? Which schools don’t? How will my decision affect my options for admissions, financial support, and my future?
Also hard to decipher is how, in addition to optional test scores, colleges and universities weigh other factors for admissions, including high school grades, rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, letters of recommendations, and essays. And since the SAT and ACT tests have not been entirely eliminated and many states continue to require these tests to graduate from high school, we may see more institutions following MIT’s lead in the coming months by reinstating tests as an admissions requirement. This will only lead to more confusion.
In essence, there is just not enough transparency around these admittance processes. Too often, high school college and career advisors are flying blind.

Preparing for Change

To generate more clarity on these issues, researchers and leaders at the University of Maryland, The Equity Research Cooperative, and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling are partnering on a new effort to track changes over multiple admissions cycles, along with outcomes such as persistence and retention. (The initiative is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where we work). These groups are compiling case studies of select institutions and talking to students to better understand their experiences with test-optional policies. The goal is to understand the impact of test optional policies on racial and socioeconomic equity and to identify and share equitable approaches to considering standardized tests in admissions.
As this work on navigating shifting college admissions processes continues, three areas of focus stand out as requiring heightened awareness from K-12 school districts and educators and leaders who work to guide college-and-career opportunities:

1. Reimagine college advising during high school.

For decades, the role of counselors and advisors in K-12 schools has needed to expand to meet the needs of all students—in particular, the needs of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds who have historically lacked access to these supports. But there simply aren’t enough resources currently; the average student-to-counselor ratio in U.S. schools is greater than 400:1. Expanding the counselor role won’t be an easy shift to make. High schools, alongside communities and colleges, need to develop different models of advising to close the gap in support, from partnering with community-based organizations, engaging peer and near-peer counselors, and embedding courses directly into school advisory periods.
It’s clear that counselors cannot know every admissions nuance for every college and university in the country. To share the load, counselors and teachers can work in partnership with students to research admissions policies and build an in-school database that is accessible to all members of the school community. Administrators can tap into their alumni network to find volunteers who can both share information as “college insiders” and contribute to building out the admissions database.  A comprehensive counseling model should leverage the community to share their college knowledge and insights about admissions policies. 

2. Clarify what “test-optional” really means.

While some colleges and universities allow applicants to choose whether to submit scores, others may not review tests altogether, and some may have specific requirements that may require GPA scores for admissions to particular parts of the institution (e.g., schools of engineering) or pathways (e.g., STEM). The use of test scores to determine scholarships or honors also differ from school to school. This inconsistency means high school counselors, parents, and students are left to search—college by college—for admissions requirements. The unintended consequence of this reality is that something may be missed, and students may apply for college on the basis of incorrect or incomplete information. 
High school college advisors—independently and through their associations—can call on colleges and universities to be more transparent and communicate policies more clearly to their students and families so they are not left guessing. They might even invite them to the high school campus to demystify the process for students and their families. This clarity will further help us all understand which options create additional barriers for under-resourced students.  

3. Ensure students have equitable access to all the parts of the college admissions process.

There’s more to college admissions than tests, so decision-making about test-optional policy should not happen in a bubble. With better, more transparent, and free access to information—whether that be college admissions websites or advice from NACAC and Fair Test—high school counselors, parents, and students can have greater access to necessary information in real time, regardless of financial resources. A centralized repository of information would ensure high school counselors and teachers can better connect the impact of test-optional policies in relation to course rigor, GPA, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities, and leave behind the guessing game that is the admissions process. The research partnership is also developing a tool that will track test-optional admissions policies in real time, which will be publicly available in late 2023.

Working Toward Equitable Approaches

“Do I, or don’t I take the test?” should no longer be the question students have to answer. Instead, after two years of test suspension, colleges and universities should be the ones to answer the question: “Do we or don’t we need a test to admit a diverse and talented pool of students?” Until then, high schools remain on the front lines of the admissions maze, shepherding their students through its confounding twists and turns.
While this is far from an exhaustive list of possible actions, it is clear that educators at every level need to work together to build greater understanding, share ideas, and develop solutions that help us move forward, not backward, with approaches that are truly equitable in this period of dramatic and rapid change.

Tiffany Jones is the deputy director for measurement learning and evaluation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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