Test Optional -- Maybe Not

The arguments are weak, writes Raymond A. Brown.

February 10, 2020

More than a decade and a half ago, some high schools (mostly found in wealthy communities) began refusing to reveal their students’ class ranks to colleges for purposes of admission. Why? Because so many colleges were misusing class rank in the admission process, high schools sophisticated enough to figure out how to game the admission system started hiding it from us. How was it that ranks were being misused? It was nearly always colleges that employed what is referred to as formulaic admission: you have these test scores, this grade point average and this class rank, and you’re either in or you’re not. Rarely did these colleges take into account the rigor of the curriculum or even the qualitative differences among high schools.

In the early 2000s, one of the largest universities in my home state of Texas, a place that since the days of Judge Roy Bean had been an open admission college, began publicizing they’d no longer be offering admission to any applicant in the bottom half of his/her class, irrespective of the student’s curriculum and/or the quality of the high school.

As one might imagine, pushback from high schools ensued. The university capitulated to a degree by telling high schools that those non-Lake Wobegoners could be considered in a newly devised “holistic review” process they were now embracing which, as an aside, many other college admission offices had been employing for decades.

High school counselors were unmoved, and increasing numbers of them began to mask the rank of their students. This was (and is) particularly problematic at high schools where grades tend to cluster toward the top. As an example, some high schools (colleges, too?) rarely mete out D's and F's. I am reminded of an applicant to my former college of employ 15 years ago from a high-end public high school. If I recall correctly, the student was number 477 of 484. He wasn’t at the bottom, of course, but he could see that floor from his vantage. As low as he was in his class, though, this fellow had a respectable-enough 2.5 GPA; he was a B/C student. Soon thereafter, this young man’s high school ceased the dissemination of class rank. I remember this case with some clarity since the student in question was the son of a trustee. He got in. But that’s a story for another time.

So now we have a burgeoning number of colleges choosing to go “test optional,” “test flexible” or “test blind.” As a lifelong admission person, I understand the pressures resulting in more and more colleges choosing this path. With the advent of U.S. News & World Report’s first rankings in the early ’80s, the rules of engagement were forever changed. As each of us attempts to be increasingly selective, we employ tactics that may appear altruistic when, in fact, they are measured and tactical in the incessant pursuit of selectivity.

May we be candid, dear colleagues? We know what’s at play here. Colleges that choose the moral high ground of going test optional (or other) are routinely viewed by others in the admissions profession as places simply trying to effect greater selectivity and/or to gain a leg up on improving particular demographics. It is hardly altruistic and rarely fueled by an institution’s own crunching of the numbers. Instead, think bandwagon.

The first highly selective university to go test optional, a place where I worked many years ago, recently touted the record diversity they welcomed in this past fall’s incoming class, due largely to having altered their stance on the submission of test scores. But hold on a moment. The additional students who improved this college’s diversity -- weren’t there others just like them in last year’s applicant pool, too? And that of the year before? Wouldn’t it be nice if the college in question could have exercised courage to admit those very types of students in previous years? Alas, the omnipresent attention paid to “the profile” has kept out in years past the many students who matriculated there this past fall under the new policy.

If you are one who truly believes test scores are seriously, if not fatally flawed, then why accept them at all? (Understand here that I am no apologist for the testing agencies. While I do believe they offer us a service, I also fully understand they are businesses -- just as we colleges are.) If test-optional proponents support their position on the grounds of standardized exams being a deeply flawed product, wouldn’t it be more authentic to jettison them altogether?

In support of going test optional, it is often posited that standardized exams are poor predictors of what they should be predicting. Are transcripts? More so, but neither is anywhere near the certainty we might be led to believe. Many years ago, I worked at a college in Wisconsin blessed with an institutional researcher who loved admissions. Long before it became de rigueur, he raised the question of the utility of standardized exams. I’ll get his numbers wrong, but I’ll be close when I recall that the strength of a standardized exam predicted first-year grades at a 0.28 level of variance. Not particularly compelling, right?

Many test-optional proponents argue, therefore, that the transcript should be the primary academic determinant. It’s hard for me to speak against that, since I also buy into the position that four years of high school coursework are more meaningful than the results of a three-hour exam. But how predictive, really, is the transcript of those same first-year grades in the aggregate of our nation’s schools? Back to my Wisconsin days, our IR guy measured it there at about a 0.42 level of variance. Still not completely comforting.

Instead of dumping the tests, then, what about promoting and publicizing the use of contextual admission? One of the ironies I see in the aforementioned highly selective college going test optional is that highly selectives are actually the best at employing contextual admission; that is, the calibration and assignment of a relative weight to each applicant’s attributes given his/her idiosyncratic environment. Therefore, it seems to me highly selectives should welcome the additional information of a test score, minimal though it might be.

But we’ve increasingly given up on class rank, and growing numbers are abandoning test scores, too. Since applicants’ essays and résumés rarely play a significant role at any place other than the 100 or so highly selectives, what’s next on the chopping block? The transcript?

High schools didn’t start the fight that’s led to the degradation of the admission process -- we college folks did. We did so by drawing artificial lines in the sand with respect to mindless implementation of class rank cutoffs. We did so by abusing what test scores were developed to be -- predictors of first-year grades, not measures to be used for admission and scholarship. We did so by not having the courage to admit kids with poorer scores, even when those same kids would now be deemed rock stars under our revised policy. We capitulated to the rankings. A former colleague for whom I have the greatest of respect, Wes Waggoner, and who is now the chief enrollment officer at Southern Methodist University, used to have a framed poster in his office that read, “Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.”

Courage, it seems, is an increasingly rare commodity. Perhaps it always has been.


Raymond A. Brown is vice president for enrollment at Valparaiso University.


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