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More college admissions are going 'test optional' for SAT, ACT

As more colleges do away with standardized test requirements, research shows hopeful students may have a fairer chance of admission.
Posted at 7:57 PM, Mar 08, 2023

On the bucolic campus of Bryn Mawr College, a liberal arts college of 1,400 students outside Philadelphia, competition is fierce for admission.

"We look at our applicants from a holistic review," said Cheryl Lynn Horsey, chief enrollment officer and acting dean of the undergraduate college.

Back in 2015, Bryn Mawr decided to try a six-year experiment.

"We did that so that we would have some real data," she said.

Bryn Mawr's pilot program made standardized tests, like the SAT or ACT— used to determine if a student is ready for college — optional for applicants in the U.S.

"Underrepresented groups, such as African American, Hispanic, Latinx, Pacific Islander and Native American — they weren't necessarily even looking at our schools because they felt like they wouldn't get in," Horsey said, "And there is a lot of data that shows that these school students from under-resourced schools don't do as well in standardized tests."

After examining six years of data from the pilot program, 80% of the college's faculty voted to make "test optional" a permanent policy.

"It did increase our applicant pool," Horsey said. "We did find that in terms of first-year retention rates, meaning the students that returned to college after their first year, we found that there was no significant, statistically significant, difference between test submitters and test optional students."

They found no real difference in four-year graduation rates, either.

Bryn Mawr joined a growing number colleges and universities no longer requiring the SAT or ACT for admission.

Students relax on the front steps of Low Memorial Library on the Columbia University campus.

Columbia is first Ivy League to permanently drop SAT, ACT requirements

The school's pandemic-era hold on standardized testing will be the new norm for applicants.


"A lot of colleges moved to test optional policies because of that, even in the pandemic," said Jared Bass, with the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. "That number went up from just north of 1,000 to now north of 1,800."

Bass and a team of researchers studied the effect of those standardized tests.

"Really, what it is correlated with is economic income or, like, income specifically," Bass said. "If you can afford test prep services — which are costly, they teach you how to take the test and do well on the test — then you're going to do well on the test. So, we were seeing this match-up between resources and test scores."

When it comes to the $55 SAT and the $60 ACT, Bass said going test optional can even the playing field in the admissions process.

"You're giving people who don't have those resources or come from low-income families a better chance to represent themselves," he said. "The important thing to remember is that it's not like people were just taking the SAT or ACT and that was it. You still have to write a personal essay. You still have to have a strong high school GPA."

The number of students taking the SAT rose from 1.5 million students in 2021 to 1.7 million in 2022, according to the nonprofit College Board, which administers the test.

Scripps News requested an interview with them, but they provided a statement instead, saying, "…when surveyed, more than 80% of students say they want the opportunity to submit their SAT scores to colleges. That is because the SAT allows students — regardless of where they go to high school — to be seen by colleges and scholarship providers."

Back at Bryn Mawr, there does not appear to be any regrets in going test optional.

"I think we've been very fortunate and very forward-thinking," Horsey said.

Whether any other colleges follow their lead remains to be seen.

a student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md.

Why some schools are rethinking standardized tests

Scores have typically been used as key factors not only in college admissions, but scholarship opportunities, too. But COVID shutdowns made it harder.