Do you believe in “test-optional”? When Al Michaels joyfully asked the world if we believed in miracles after the United States upstaged the Soviet Union in men’s hockey at the 1980 Olympic Games in what is widely regarded as the most significant upset in the history of sports, most people shouted in unison with him, “Yes!” But we suspect you did not shout the same agreement at your computer screen when we asked you if you believe in “test-optional” admissions policies. As we asserted when our nation’s highly selective universities transitioned to “test-optional” admissions policies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t believe these policies are worth the paper on which they are written. Rather, we believe they are attempts by our nation’s virtue-signaling elite colleges to make it seem as though they’re trying to level the playing field and expand access.
In reality, and despite what admissions officers may suggest to the contrary, at the vast majority of our nation’s elite universities that are not requiring test scores this year, a student with a great score will always have an advantage over a student with no score. We took heat for suggesting as much when these schools first announced their “test-optional” policies. A man who has committed his life to eliminating testing in admissions, Bob Schaeffer, called us out on the National Association for College Admission Counseling listserv for daring to question the authenticity of admissions officers. Well, these months later, we fully stand behind our initial conclusion: students with great test scores will always have an advantage over students who don’t submit scores.
The Data and the Absence of Data Tell the True Story on “Test-Optional” Admissions Policies
The data — and the absence of data — tells the story. You see, the vast majority of our nation’s elite universities have not released their data on the percentage of students admitted with and without scores. But of the few elite universities that have released such data, well, there exists a statistically significant correlation between submitting scores and enjoying an advantage in the admissions process. Recently, Vanderbilt University has joined institutions like Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania in releasing some data on the submission of testing with respect to their applicant pools. And, lo and behold, the data suggests students with scores had better odds of admission to the Nashville, Tennessee-based university. In fact, 56.3% of students applied to Vanderbilt this year with test scores. 61.1% of students who earned admission to the university submitted scores. In short, a larger share of the admitted pool submitted test scores than the share of the overall applicant pool.
These figures are consistent with the data that UPenn and Georgetown have thus far released. At UPenn, about 66% of Early Decision applicants to UPenn’s Class of 2025 submitted test scores. And about 75% of Early Decision applicants who earned admission submitted test scores. At Georgetown, 7.34% of Early Action applicants to the Class of 2025 who did not submit test scores earned admission. This compares to Georgetown’s 10.8% overall Early Action admit rate for the Class of 2025. And while other elite universities haven’t yet released such data, we’re ready to make a conjecture in the absence of this data: a larger share of the admitted pool submitted test scores than the share of the overall applicant pool at each and every highly selective university across the land. Yes, we suspect it’s true at each of the Ivy League universities. We suspect it’s true at Duke University, at Stanford University, Northwestern University, and so on so forth. Hey, Ivy Coach’s crystal ball has a storied history of making accurate forecasts in the absence of data. Don’t bet against it!
Admissions Leaders Sometimes Let the True Story on “Test-Optional” Admissions Policies Slip, Too
And don’t ignore the words of admissions leaders, admissions leaders who have a tendency to issue some Freudian slips to the press. In a piece entitled “Interest Surges in Top Colleges, While Struggling Ones Scrape for Applicants,” Amelia Nierenberg writes, “Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We saw people that thought ‘I would never get into Cornell’ thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance,’” said Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment.” Who ever would have given them that crazy idea?
And it’s not like Cornell’s Jonathan Burdick is alone with his slips to major news outlets. In a CNN piece by Yon Pomrenze and Bianna Golodryga entitled “College applications in pandemic year show deepening inequities in access to higher education,” NYU’s admissions leader offers a most interesting quote. As Pomrenze and Golodryga report, “‘You might find more students applying to an Ivy League or a school like NYU because they feel like they have a chance (now that test scores are optional),’ says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for Enrollment Management at New York University. NYU saw a 20% spike in applications this year.” It’s worth noting that Ms. Knoll-Finn opines that these applicants “felt like they [had] a chance” but she doesn’t actually say that, well, they did! Yes, the numbers tell the story. But so too do the admissions officers — whether or not they intend to and irrespective of whether or not they tell you in information sessions and in their marketing material that students are at no disadvantage for not submitting test scores.
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