Test-Optional Admissions Policies Hurt the Populations They Intend to Help

By: Jillian Ludwig

In late July, the University of Wisconsin-Madison joined the rest of the UW System in receiving a waiver from the Board of Regents to suspend ACT and SAT score requirements for admissions in response to COVID-19. The original waiver was set to expire on December 31, 2020, but the university has already opted to extend the suspension until the summer of 2023. This raises suspicions that their choice is not solely due to COVID-19 but a trend spreading throughout higher education.

In the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, flexibility is necessary, but as the UW System’s flagship university, UW-Madison must refrain from having fashionable policies and work to maintain its high academic standard. If the university wants to maintain that standard, they will continue to take into account all measures of academic preparedness — both high school performance and standardized test scores, first and foremost.

In recent years, test-optional admissions policies have become increasingly popular in higher education, as standardized tests have been scrutinized for furthering inequity among students. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into many aspects of life, it has also had the unintended effect of spurring on this movement. In fact, the pandemic has resulted in hundreds of universities from California to New York opting to remove their requirements for scores.

Before UW Madison’s waiver was granted, the university prided itself on its “holistic” admissions approach, asserting that test scores are not a full representation of a student or their ability. However, the highly competitive test scores of UW’s admitted freshmen suggest that they have indeed been an important factor in admissions, or at least perceived as such by applicants. In 2018, the 25th percentile ACT score for freshmen was 27, 6.5 points higher than the average score for students in Wisconsin. Without standardized tests to consider, inevitably more weight will be placed on high school grades and extracurricular activities.

But in order to consider whether standardized tests are a good measure, one must first consider the reason why they have been used as a tool for accessing admissions in the first place. The fact is that standardized test scores allow for admissions officers to see through the varying standards of high schools across the country, and they do measure critical thinking and analytical skills. Standardized test scores were originally created to “level the playing field,” so to speak, which is what makes this ironic that they are being removed because they may contribute to inequity.

Opponents of standardized tests will often site that high test scores have a correlation with family wealth. And indeed, according to a study by Brookings Institution, average SAT scores do increase with family income. For this reason, the importance of test scores should not be overstated. However, by doing away with ACT and SAT tests, schools might deepen the very inequities that test-optional policies are meant to resolve.

Without test scores to consider, the other factors that UW analyzes like high school grades, rigor of high school curriculum, and extracurricular activities will assume a bigger role in admissions. Interestingly enough, these components are also highly likely to be affected by wealth. A study from the Fordham Institute shows that high school grade inflation is pervasive but is even more prominent at the schools of wealthier students, placing less-affluent students at a disadvantage from a GPA standpoint. A documented lack of advanced placement classes in both rural and urban areas of Wisconsin also sets these students back when compared to suburban students in terms of course rigor. Finally, the costs of extracurricular activities offered by schools and outside organizations often discourages less wealthy students from participating.

Considering these facts, it seems that standardized test scores might offer low-income students an opportunity to objectively distinguish themselves amongst their wealthier peers when these other metrics fall short. For this reason, neither high-school performance or standardized test scores should be a golden ticket into college, but when considered together, they should play a powerful role in determining acceptance.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, it is fair that UW-Madison has chosen to exercise flexibility in the admissions process this fall. However, the UW System and universities across the nation must consider the long-term implications of getting rid of ACT and SAT score requirements as a valuable piece of the puzzle. Instead of scrapping imperfect measures completely, colleges should evaluate the weight they assign to any one measure and demand more accurate assessments from testing agencies and high schools alike to achieve fairer standards.

Ludwig is an intern at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

A non-profit law & policy group in Wisconsin. We defend property rights, voting rights, school choice, religious liberty & other ideas conservative.