Study: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions

William Hiss, Ph.D, a presenter at many of our conferences for teachers and college deans, has completed a new study that we hope every college dean and high school principal will read and consider. While the study doesn’t specifically address dyslexia, dyslexics are a subset within the larger group of students studied. We are encouraged by this study, and expect that it will help open access to higher education for dyslexics, and many other individuals, who for a variety of reasons struggle to score well on standardized tests. The study validates the idea that hard work, effort, and good grades are as much a predictor of success as good test scores.


William C. Hiss, Principal Investigator Valerie W. Franks, Co-Author and Lead Researcher

For over thirty years, but increasingly in the last decade, hundreds of institutions have made standardized testing optional. This three-year national study is the first major published research to evaluate optional testing policies in depth and across institutional types. A fundamental question is: “Are college admissions decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores?”

The thirty-three colleges and universities in this study include twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority-serving institutions, and two arts institutions–a total of approximately 123,000 student records at institutions with enrollments from 50,000 students to 350, located in twenty-two US states and territories.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) “Report on the Commission on the Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions” urged colleges and universities to “take back the conversation” about testing. This study is a contribution to that discussion.

Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but this study asks a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?

The major findings of the study:

  • With approximately 30% of the students at these institutions admitted as non-submitters, there are no significant differences in either Cumulative GPA or graduation rates between submitters and non-submitters. With almost 123,000 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point, and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard, these are trivial differences.
  • lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.
  • Non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college enrollees, all categories of minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with Learning Differences (LD). But across institutional types, white students also use optional testing policies at rates within low single digits of the averages, so the policies have broad appeal across ethnic groups.
  • Non-submitters support successful enrollment planning in a broad range of ways.
  • Non-submitters display a distinct two-tail or bimodal curve of family financial capacity, with both low-income and high-income families in larger numbers.
  • Non-submitters may commonly be missed in consideration for no-need merit financial awards, despite better Cum GPAs and markedly higher graduation rates than the submitters who receive merit awards. Institutions may want to examine their criteria for no-need merit awards, especially the use of standardized testing to qualify students.

For economic growth and social stability, America will need to find successful paths to higher education for hundreds of thousands of additional first-generation-to-college, minority, immigrant, rural and LD students.This study provides the research support for optional testing as at least one route by which that can happen.

First heard on NPR! Click here to read or listen to the story.


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