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The Ivy Coach Daily

October 18, 2022

The Anchoring Bias of Test Scores in Admissions

There’s a great piece in The Hechinger Report on test-optional admissions policies.

Loyal readers of our college admissions blog know where we stand on test-optional admissions policies at our nation’s elite universities: all else being equal, students with great SAT or ACT scores will always enjoy an advantage over applicants with no test scores. And while we are very well aware that so many admissions officers at just about all elite universities will tell you that this is not the case, that under test-optional admissions policies, students who do not submit test scores face no disadvantage, we beg to differ. Admissions offices, after, all, are marketers. Their task is to inspire students to apply. The more students who apply, the lower the school’s admission rate will be, and invariably the school will be ranked in US News & World Report. Why would these same admissions officers therefore tell applicants that not submitting test scores will be disadvantageous to their cases for admission?

But we don’t believe admissions officers are purposely misleading applicants. Indeed, we believe that many admissions officers actually believe that students with great test scores enjoy no advantage over students with no test scores. As Jill Barshay reports for The Hechinger Report in a piece entitled, “PROOF POINTS: Colleges that ditched test scores for admissions find it’s harder to be fair in choosing students, researcher says,” “‘It’s really hard to ignore test scores if that’s the way you were trained to review applications and think about merit,’ said [Kelly] Slay, [a Vanderbilt University professor who has been interviewing admissions officers in 2022 to understand test-optional policies]. ‘If the standardized test is there in the file, it might still bias you in ways that you’re not aware of. It’s an anchoring bias.'”

Well said, Professor Slay! It’s an “anchoring bias.” Admissions officers may not even realize they are discriminating against applicants without test scores — but they sure do. Just as admissions officers so often discriminate against Asian American applicants and other such groups, they discriminate against applicants without test scores. Barshay goes on to write, “The stress and pressure of being short-staffed and confused could affect anyone’s decision making. The conditions were ripe for amplifying implicit biases – exactly the opposite of the intent of the test-optional policy.”

Call it an anchoring bias. Call it implicit bias. It’s a bias. As we said from atop our soapbox in elite college admissions early on in the pandemic when so many colleges transitioned to test-optional (and not without facing criticism), all else being equal, students with great test scores will always enjoy an advantage over students with no test scores. Indeed we stand by our assessment of test-optional admissions policies these years later.

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