Hundreds of colleges dropped out of SAT and ACT. Here is what happened.

When the deadline to submit college applications approached last year, Hillary Cabrera Orosco was disappointed.

The daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant and an almost straightforward student, she had made up her mind to enroll at Cornell University, an elite campus in New York, where her senior cousin was already enrolled.

But her SAT scores were discouraging.

“It was humble,” said Cabrera Orosco, 18, a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School in northwest Westchester County, New York City. “I worked hard all my years in high school, and then a test would determine if I was good enough for a school. I think it’s kind of unfair. ”

What Cabrera Orosco did not realize was that the contagious disease that had plagued her high school years, including Cornell, had eliminated the standard testing requirements for college admission offices across the country. The most significant change in college admissions since SAT and ACT became widely needed 50 years ago – has become a large-scale experiment, with higher stakes for both colleges and their prospective students.

“This is a big change in how admissions decisions are made,” said Robert Schaefer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of the way standard testing is used. “Pandemic created a natural experiment. Colleges were forced to see how Test Optional works.

Before the pandemic, test-optional and test-blind admissions began to gain steam, and spokesmen argued that the tests would adversely affect the chances of applicants who did not traditionally do well, including first-language non-English students and parents’ students. Did not go to college, black and Hispanic students, immigrant students, students whose families could not afford expensive test prep programs.

But when Pandemic made it difficult to safely perform those tests, the test-optional wave became a tsunami. Today, almost every college freshman – and almost every high school adult expected to start next fall – can apply without submitting a score.

MIT has recently made headlines when it announced that applicants will be asked to resubmit their scores – MIT leaders believe the tests will help identify potential students whose circumstances in high school have affected their grades. Hundreds of institutions, such as the University of California and California State University campuses, have gone the other way and adopted test-optional or test-blind policies permanently.

But many of the most competitive colleges, including those in the Ivy League, are still collecting data to see how the experiment turns out.

“We’ll study this first group,” Cornell’s Vice Provost for Enrollment John Burdy told the current Freshman class. “We will study this next alliance and try to mock and unpack what kind of results it has created in a legitimate way.”

‘I knew I was capable’

Prior to the Pandemic, Burdy was curious to see how the growing number of small and private liberal arts schools would stop demanding standardized tests, but Cornell did not take them seriously.

When the health crisis closed the testing sites in 2020, Cornell’s four graduate colleges decided to take the exam as an option, meaning that students could submit a test score if they thought it would help, but did not have to. Cornell’s three colleges have adopted test-blind policies, meaning that admissions officers will not look at any student’s scores.

The repercussions were immediate, Burdy said. Like many other colleges and universities, Cornell is full of applications – about 71,000 more than 50,000 in a typical year.

New applications – especially those without test scores attached – are more likely to come from “students who seem historically excluded.”

The university has always examined many factors in making admission decisions, and low test scores will never be disqualified, Burdy said. But it was clear that students were rejecting themselves, and decided not to apply to places like Cornell because they thought their low SAT scores would not be accessible to them, he said.

Other colleges also saw a similar jump in applications.

“If I had to include my score, I would not have applied to the schools I applied to,” said Kate Hidalgo, 19, who did not even know her immigrant family in Elmsford, New York, in Westchester. She can take and prepare for SAT from ninth grade to increase her score. “I knew I had the talent, but I did not have the resources that others had.”

Kate Hidalgo, right, her family.Credit to Kate Hidalgo

When it came to frustrating SAT scores, she began to revise her list of schools, until her advisor at Latino U College Access, who helps her access the first-generation Latinos College, said she did not need her test scores.

She attended several top schools and eventually opted for a full-ride scholarship to the University of Rochester (which moved to test-option admission in 2019). She engages in student government and enjoys her classes.

“I thrive here,” she said.

At Cornell, controlling the flow of applications was not easy, Burdy said. The university hired several admission officers and a dozen part-time application readers – partially paying the additional application fee.

The staff developed a number system to compare high school grades, and applicants would receive more points if they took more challenging classes.

Eventually, Cornell joined a more diverse class, including a nearly 50 percent increase in the share of first-generation college students. “It showed me that these students who were given the opportunity could gain admission by showing really remarkable competitiveness and by minimizing or eliminating the test barrier,” Burdy said.

An ‘illuminating’ experiment

Research on colleges that took the exam optional years ago shows that students who are admitted without test scores are from more diverse backgrounds and will perform better in their classes once the test scores reach the submitted peers. Admission directors at leading colleges are closely monitoring how these policies work on their campuses.

Yale University has previously studied the value of SAT and ACT scores, and researchers have found that high scores predict better academic success while controlling other factors, said Mark Dunn, Yale’s associate director of admissions.

But now that the pandemic test has prompted Yale to move on, researchers are studying a new data set, and administrators plan to give it some time to experiment.

“It’s really enlightening and instructive to be clearly compelled to this policy,” Dunn said.

The University of Chicago turned to experimenting with optional admissions in 2018 as a way to expand diversity, said Veronica Huad, deputy director of admissions, who was excited about the results. Fifty-six percent more blacks, 26 percent more Hispanic and Latino students, 33 percent more rural students and 36 percent more first-year students than the last class registered before the policy change.

The University of Chicago had to increase its financial aid budget by 37 percent to help students from low-income families, but that was part of the college’s commitment to diversity, Houd said.

“For a lot of students from many backgrounds, whether under-represented or under-represented, you come to college and you meet people who are nothing like you,” she said. “It really opens your eyes.”

Motivation for equity

The organizations that make up the SAT and ACT acknowledge that rich and white students perform better on average than other students, but they say that these tests only measure inequality in the nation’s education system – and do not cause it.

“Abandoning the use of objective assessments such as ACT or SAT presents great subjectivity and uncertainty in the admissions process,” said Janet Godwin, CEO of ACT.

Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of the college board that makes SAT, said in a statement that many other factors considered in college admissions affect wealth and status because families can hire writing instructors and admission advisors. Preference for alumni children.

“Differently, SAT is available to all students, is free to practice, and can be taken for free by low-income students,” Rodriguez said, adding that in some high schools, grades become unreliable as student grades rise above average. Quantity.

Craig Robinson, CEO of College Possible, worries that non-profit first-generation students will be helped to enter and succeed in college, and that test-option policies may cause some schools to fail to make their equity work and make other necessary changes. The college is making it more affordable and ending admission preferences for alumni students.

“We would be foolish to think that this decision or a trend could be a game changer that addresses systematic inequality in access for years,” he said, adding that declining test scores were a good start.

Cabrera Orosco credits Cornell with the good news she received last month for her test optional policy, inviting her to join the university’s class of 2026. They hope the policy will continue.

“It gives more opportunity to the students who are doing well in school,” she said, adding that “those who fail the exam five times to get the best score.”

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