Celebrating the Standardized Test Optional Movement

Fifty years ago Bowdoin College (Maine) under the leadership of Director of Admissions Richard Moll became the first undergraduate admission office to boldly NOT require standardized tests as part of a senior’s application. Bowdoin’s recognition that a student’s college success was deeper than simply one’s ability to score well on the SAT or ACT made a revolutionary statement in 1969. Today, there are over 1000 colleges and universities (see Fairtest.org) who have institutionalized a variety of Test Optional Policies (TOP) for student applicants. For many of us on the high school side of the admission table, there is a great deal to celebrate in this growing trend. Test optional policies signal a powerful message to high schoolers that colleges are indeed interested in the whole applicant (head, heart and hands) and wish to reduce standardized test barriers for ALL applicants.

We owe tremendous gratitude to a team of former admission officers and researchers – Bill Hiss, Valerie Frank, Steve Syverson, and Yuko Mulugetta – who have done extensive research on test optional policies in thirty-three colleges over the past several years. In 2014, Bill Hiss and Valerie Frank (both from Bates) led a study called Defining Promise that found “the non-submitters (those who chose to apply without submitting their SAT or ACT scores) went on to graduate at virtually the same rates (a 0.6 percent point difference) and with nearly the same college GPA (.05 of a Cum GPA) as the submitters whose test scores were considered in the admission process.” Their report also stated, “their research concluded that non-submitters were more likely to be first-generation to college, underrepresented minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with learning differences.” Since their initial report, Bill’s team has produced two further studies – Defining Access: Can De-Emphasizing the Role of Standardized Testing in College Admissions Change College Bound Populations (2016) and Defining Access: How Test Optional Works (2018). Both reports are excellent reads and contain a lot of salient information for those of us who are interested in this movement and its growth.

One of the biggest takeaways from the research is that colleges who institute test optional policies “appears to offer a less obstructed path to higher education for students who feel that their scores do not match their ability” (particularly one’s high school transcript). There continues to be real concern that standardized tests “unnecessarily truncates the admission of otherwise well-qualified students.” For these reasons, I wish to honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of the standardized test optional movement, the contributing research of Bill Hiss and his colleagues – Valerie, Steve, and Yuko – which has substantiated TOP’s value, and applaud each college that has implemented TOPs policies. Let us continue to holistically see (and assess) each applicant for who s/he truly are and lower the barriers to access and equity for everyone.

Reference: Syverson, Steve. “Defining Access: Final Results of the Test-Optional Research Project,” Character Collaborative, NACAC, 2018