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Researchers study ways to make college admissions more equitable

The Penn State College of Education has received a sub-award on a $1.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Kelly Rosinger, assistant professor of education (education and public policy) is a co-principal investigator on a University of Maryland-led study to examine patterns in admissions and enrollment related to widespread adoption of test-optional admissions policies at selective higher education institutions over the past few years. The study will look at how those policies could support greater racial and economic diversity in college enrollment.

The two-year project, “Test-Optional Admissions Policy Equity Outcomes,” will draw on detailed information regarding institutions’ test-optional policies to examine their relationship with the number of applications colleges receive, the percent of students who are accepted, the yield rate, and enrollment by race and economic status. Julie Park, University of Maryland, is the PI and additional co-PI’s are OiYan Poon, Colorado State University; Dominique Baker, Southern Methodist University; and Brian Kim, University of Maryland.

The research team’s work at Penn State will center on collecting detailed information regarding when and how selective colleges and universities implemented test-optional policies. The data will include information about what type of standardized testing policy each college used for students entering in fall 2021. For example, the team will document whether colleges were test-free in which test scores were not collected; test-optional in which students chose whether to submit an SAT or ACT score; test-flexible in which students submitted an alternate test score in place of the SAT or ACT; or test score-requiring. The team also will collect information regarding who was eligible to apply under test-free/optional/flexible admissions policies, such as students with a specified GPA or class rank; whether the policy was temporary or permanent; and whether test scores were used in awarding merit scholarships. Finally, the team will capture information about when colleges adopted test-optional policies if they were implemented previously.

Rosinger said the college admissions testing environment changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many high school students were not able to take the SAT or ACT after testing date cancellations and reduced capacity at testing locations.

According to a recent report by FairTest, nearly 80% of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities are not requiring ACT or SAT scores from students seeking to enroll in fall 2022. The report states that more than 1,815 colleges and universities — including Penn State — now practice test-optional or test-blind admissions, an all-time high. The University of Chicago, Columbia University and Stanford University are among the selective private institutions that will not require ACT or SAT tests from applicants. In addition, many public university systems including those in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Washington will remain test-optional or test-blind.

While the pivot from requiring standardized tests to adopting test-optional policies during the pandemic may seem sudden, Rosinger said the adoption of test-optional policies is a long-term trend over the last couple of decades. The movement was initiated by selective liberal arts colleges as part of an effort to increase access for low-income and racially minoritized applicants. Colleges often implement test-optional admissions because of racial and economic inequities in test scores and because they do not always predict students’ longer-term success beyond other academic measures, Rosinger said.

“We know the use of test scores in the college admissions process is concerning from an equity perspective,” Rosinger said. “The hope is our research can offer some insights into how we could reimagine college admissions in a way that could produce more equitable outcomes for students of color and low-income students that are underrepresented at these campuses.”

A major impetus for conducting this study, said Rosinger, is that the existing research on test-optional admissions policies has come to mixed conclusions about their effectiveness. Early research from liberal arts colleges that adopted test-optional policies showed that they didn’t increase racial and economic diversity in the student body but led to more applicants and the submission of ACT/SAT scores that were consequently higher. That dynamic can lead to institutions benefiting more than students since they can become more selective due to the greater volume of applications.

“This early work indicated test-optional policies, at least in some contexts, helped institutions more than they helped students,” Rosinger said. “In doing so, these policies can end up reproducing the same inequities.”

However, she added, more recent research has shown that adopting test-optional policies has led to some increases in racial and economic diversity in enrollment. In their study, the researchers are hoping to look at how institutional type — more selective versus less selective, primarily white-serving versus minority-serving — and variations in how colleges implement test-optional policies could impact the efficacy of the policies.

At the conclusion of the research project, the team will post the data it collects on college entrance exam policies to the research project website for researchers and practitioners to access. The aim of the project is to understand how college admissions practices can lead to racial and economic inequities, and to provide insight into more equitable admissions practices.

“Through this research, we hope to contribute to ongoing discussions regarding how college admissions practices and policies can be designed to create more equitable college campuses,” Rosinger said.



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