Test-optional college admissions got a major boost during the pandemic. Does it work?

At DePaul University, the answer is a tentative “Yes,” along with caution when searching for a quick fix for equitable access to higher ed.

Karma Jackson DePaul University
Karma Jackson is a junior neuroscience major at DePaul University. They only applied to schools that were test optional when they were looking at colleges in 2018. “Students should feel like they’re being looked at as a person rather than a statistic,” Jackson said. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Karma Jackson DePaul University
Karma Jackson is a junior neuroscience major at DePaul University. They only applied to schools that were test optional when they were looking at colleges in 2018. “Students should feel like they’re being looked at as a person rather than a statistic,” Jackson said. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Test-optional college admissions got a major boost during the pandemic. Does it work?

At DePaul University, the answer is a tentative “Yes,” along with caution when searching for a quick fix for equitable access to higher ed.

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When Lillian Klatz took the SAT last year as a high school senior, she felt her score didn’t reflect the hard work she had been putting in over the years.

She also didn’t think her score would be good enough to get her into a selective school like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But when she found out schools were going test-optional after the pandemic first hit in March 2020, she decided to apply.

“I was ecstatic because I feel like it opened up so many doors for me,” said Klatz, who is from Oak Park.

She hoped the personal essay she wrote about why she dreamed of becoming an elementary teacher and the four years of honors Spanish she took in high school would be enough. I wanted to “show admissions who I really am and why I deserve to be here, even without a test score,” she said

And to her surprise, it worked.

Klatz is one of the thousands of students across the state and country who enrolled in college this fall without submitting an SAT or ACT score as part of their application. Like Klatz, many of them thought it would give them a better and fairer shot at getting in. “I worked really hard in high school, but the test just wasn’t really showing that,” Klatz said.

Two-thirds of the nation’s colleges and universities didn’t require standardized test scores for admission this fall, according to a tally compiled by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. That’s grown another 11% this year to more than 76% this fall.

The sudden transition to test-optional has eased anxiety for thousands of students and, for many like Klatz, potentially helped their applications. It also has blown up  the longstanding debate over whether standardized tests should be part of the college admissions process. In the midst of a pandemic, this has launched a nationwide experiment that is both generating optimism as well as concern. It’s a story that’s been playing out in Chicago for nearly a decade at DePaul University, which went test optional in 2012.

Getting rid of standardized tests has contributed to record applications at some universities. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, saw a 9.5% increase in applications and welcomed its largest freshman class in school history this year. The spike in applications, though, is raising questions about whether all admitted students are prepared for the rigors of college at the selective schools where some are now enrolled.

The issue of diversity on campus is also front and center. Supporters of getting rid of standardized tests in admissions hope this trend can help diversify colleges, though many say dropping standardized tests isn’t enough.

A flawed system

As colleges across the country scramble to assemble ad hoc test-optional admissions systems, other schools have been at this work for years. That includes right here in Chicago, where DePaul University abandoned its testing requirement almost a decade ago.

At the time, DePaul tapped into a growing consensus that relying on standardized tests unfairly disadvantages some students, particularly lower-income students and students of color.

The SAT college entrance exam, after all, was developed in the 1930s to find prospective students with high IQ scores that could be brought to the campuses of the nation’s elite colleges, said Nicholas Lemann, a journalism professor at Columbia University. Most of these students were young men who came from wealthy New England families.

Later, the test evolved into “the sorting mechanism that much of American education has become today,” explained Noah Sobe, a historian of education at Loyola University Chicago.

But over time, education researchers began investigating the racial, gender and socioeconomic biases embedded in the system of standardized testing. The research began gaining momentum and in a 2008 report published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling concluded that a “ ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for the use of standardized tests in undergraduate admission does not reflect the realities facing America’s colleges and universities.”

Another key study by the University of California, Berkeley in 2007 pointed in a different direction. It showed that a “high-school grade point average is consistently the best predictor not only of freshman grades in college … but of four-year college outcomes as well.”

It became evident to researchers and admission officials that standardized tests weren’t predicting a prospective student’s success in college as much as they were predicting the socioeconomic level of the student taking it.

“There are students who have access to tutoring support, test prep courses … those cost a lot of money. And then there are students who just aren’t able to access those things,” said Erin Updegraff, the interim dean of undergraduate admission at DePaul. “But they’re having to sit for the same test that’s being used in the same college admissions process.”

Armed with mounting evidence that high school GPAs could successfully be used in place of SAT scores, DePaul decided to try out test-optional in 2012, becoming the first university in the state and one of the nation’s largest private universities to do so. It made the program permanent in 2016.

DePaul University launched a test optional program in 2012, well before the pandemic prompted the majority of U.S. colleges and universities to let students apply without submitting a standardized test score. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Diversifying campus

The DePaul test-optional program has been small — until it exploded this year. In 2016, only 10% of admitted students chose not to submit a test score. That number rose to 25% in 2020 and then jumped to about 60% this year during the pandemic, officials say.

The students who initially took advantage of applying without test scores tended to be first-generation students, students of color and those who were eligible for Pell grants. In other words, those that have historically been most affected by the barriers posed by the SAT, said Updegraff.

That has helped diversify DePaul’s freshman classes. But because of the small scale of the program until this year, its impact thus far has also been small. DePaul does not have demographic data available on students who enrolled this fall when the test-optional program expanded dramatically.

The most recent data show that nearly 500 freshmen, or 17% of all first-years, enrolled without a test score in 2020. This group includes a greater percentage of Latino and Black students than the freshmen class as a whole. But this only helps on the margins for a school with 14,000 undergrads. DePaul already has a relatively diverse student body with a growing Latino and Asian population. Its Black undergraduate population has remained stuck at 8% for the past four years.

But there is a disconnect. The percentage of Black and Hispanic freshmen admitted to DePaul over the past eight years is up significantly, from roughly 25% to 37%. But the percentage isn’t quite as high among the group of students who enroll.

And that, many experts say, is one of the many flaws in believing test-optional admissions alone will diversify college campuses.

“It can look from the outside as if you are being more equitable,” said Alex Seeskin, the chief strategy officer at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. “You can also likely drive up the total number of applicants and the diversity of your total applicant pool. But at the end of the day, are you accepting more first-generation and students of color into your university? And are those students as successful in completing their degree as other students are?”

Seeskin said steep tuition costs still pose a barrier for many students of color and first-generation students.

“I think there’s a legitimate concern that doing away with the admissions test is sort of like putting a bandaid over a fundamentally broken system,” Seeskin said. “And that until we really rethink the nature of the entire college admission system, we’re not going to see dramatic changes, either in the proportion of first-gen and students of color who have access or the proportion of first-gen students of color, who are successful.”

Ready for college?

There are also lots of questions circulating in college circles about whether all students who are admitted without a test score are ready academically.

“In a test-optional world, we’re looking at the student’s academic record. We’re looking at where the student is coming from and how they perform in high school,” said Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the U of I Urbana-Champaign, where 42% of students who enrolled this year didn’t submit test scores. “But in the absence of test scores, we’re taking a chance on those students.”

Admission officials say they are now looking more closely at experiences that prospective students bring to the table, which they often write about in their application essays. They are also relying more heavily on high school transcripts.

“The number one factor that we use in our review is seeing if students are taking advantage of the most rigorous curriculum that’s available to them at their high school and performing well in those classes,” Borst said. “We want to be cautious in evaluating whether the student had the opportunity to take a class such as calculus or physics. Was it even offered at their school? And if it was, at what level?”

Many welcome this new kind of personalized approach, but it has its limits, said Seeskin. Seeing what classes are available to students from lower-income backgrounds can even out the playing field, he said. But “rigor can sometimes be code for the types of experiences that students with privilege predominantly have access to,” such as expensive sports and extracurricular activities.

This, he said, can perpetuate bias in college admissions.

“The truth is that we’re now asking admission officials to choose between students,” Seeskin said. “And when we ask people in college admissions to make those types of choices, we are, by definition, inviting a whole host of biases into the process.”

Updegraff, at DePaul, said there was concern that admitting students without test scores could negatively affect the yardsticks used to measure the school overall. So far, there appears to be no impact, though there is only data available for when the program was small.

This fall, DePaul’s incoming freshman class had the highest average high school GPA in the school’s history, according to university data. And, since the DePaul test-optional program became permanent in 2016, freshmen one-year retention rates and graduation rates have remained relatively consistent.

“More than a number”

Karma Jackson, a DePaul junior, is part of the new generation of college-ready students who aren’t submitting test scores and are asking admission officials to look at them with a wide lens.

Jackson took the SAT in high school and said they scored pretty well. But they chose only to apply to schools that were test optional. That was in 2018, before the pandemic jump-started the test-optional experiment. “Students should feel like they’re being looked at as a person rather than a statistic,” Jackson said.

Jackson is one of many students who want to see this change in college admissions.

“This test-optional attitude has gotten out there in the higher-ed community,” Updegraff said. “And students now think, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a test score I could send you and it’s totally fine. But I want you to look at my application as more than just a number.”

When Jackson applied to DePaul, they remember doing their best to show how involved they were in their community.

“I was like, ‘Okay, here’s my transcript. Here’s how I write, but look at the real thing,’ ” Jackson said. “Here’s what I do outside of school: I dance. I’m in choir. I work with the band. I had over 5,000 volunteer hours by the end of high school.”

“I just felt like test scores shouldn’t be required,” Jackson said. “Like why does my intelligence have to be scaled down to a number?”

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.