One recurring theme in the debate about affirmative action and preferences has been the dispute about the role that standardized tests should play in the admissions process.  If, as many believe, assessments of “merit” should shape these decisions, does the American College Testing (ACT) standardized test of English, mathematics, reading, and scientific reasoning provide an appropriate measure of the individual and their prospects for success once they matriculate?  In particular, do the bases on which that and similar tests are developed and their content in some way discriminate against minority applicants?

The University of California, for example, has been test-optional for a number of years.  It does not required students to submit ACT or SAT scores when it makes its admissions and scholarship decisions.  Students may provide that information if they wish, but it is generally used only as a means of determining what the system describes as “fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility or for course placement once you enroll.”

A number of institutions have in recent weeks announced that they are joining the test-optional movement.  In January, 2022, for example, the University of Iowa Board of Regents voted to make its three institutions (University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa) test-optional, declaring that while such tests “have some value on predicting first-year [grade point averages they] ultimately had a limited relationship to the likelihood of graduation.”  More significantly, Harvard has extended a test-optional decision initially predicated on testing-site access problems cause by the Covid-19 pandemic for four years.  Stressing that its “whole-person admissions process” made “standardized tests [simply] one factor among many considered,” Harvard promised that “[s]tudents who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process.” 

The Harvard announcement did not tie its decision to the litigation currently challenging its admissions regime.  That said, the stress on a “whole-person admissions process” and tests as just “one factor among many considered” was almost certainly not accidental.  It tracks closely the heart of Harvard’s defense in Students for Fair Admissions v. The President and Fellows of Harvard College, one of the two cases the Supreme Court will hear this coming Fall that many believe may lead to a ruling that race-based preferences in college and university admissions are unconstitutional.

 As one commentator observed, with “Harvard being Harvard,” its announcement sent a “shot across the bows of higher education.” Individuals who have long believed that standardized tests discriminate against minority applicants rejoiced, arguing that the end of their use should be both permanent and extended across the board in higher education.  Critics, in turn, lamented the abolition of “objective standards” in favor of “subjective criteria” that would foster a different form of discrimination, operating to the disadvantage of individuals and groups whose admissions credentials were consistent with long-standing beliefs that test scores and grade point averages offered an objective and generally reliable picture of individual “merit” and prospects for academic success.

It remains to be seen if the test-optional movement will now gain additional momentum.  Regardless, it has considerable bearing on the debate about affirmative action and preferences and merits our attention.

List of Citations

Jack Buckley, Lynn Letukas & Ben Wildavsky (Eds.).  Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions. 2018: Johns Hopkins University Press

Eric Hoover, Extension of Harvard’s test-Optional Policy Fires “a Shot Across the Bow’ of Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 17, 2021

Katie Akin, Iowa Board of Regents votes to remove standardized testing requirement, Iowa Capital Dispatch, Jan. 12, 2022.

Additional Reading

Board of Regents, State of Iowa, Board of Regents Admissions Policy Changes, Agenda Item 9, Jan. 11-12, 2022

Anemona Hartcollis, Harvard Extends Test-Optional Admissions Policy for Four Years, New York Times, December 16, 2021

Scott Jaschik, Will test optional become the new normal in admissions?, Inside Higher Ed, January 24, 2022