The Ivy Coach Daily

March 15, 2021

The Truth Comes Out About Test-Optional Policies

We have long argued that “test-optional” policies aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The numbers that UPenn has released from the Early Decision round for the Class of 2025 substantiate our thesis (photo credit: Bryan Y.W. Shin).

Several months ago, there was a brouhaha on the National Association for College Admission Counseling email listserv. For those not familiar with the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), it’s an organization that includes admissions officers, school counselors, and private college counselors. So what was the brouhaha all about, you ask? Well, the leader of an organization bent on eliminating the consideration of testing in admissions known as FairTest, Bob Schaeffer, cut and pasted a quote Ivy Coach’s Brian Taylor, a member of NACAC, offered to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania. In the piece, “Experts worry that Penn’s test-optional application process will benefit wealthier students,” Brian was quoted as follows: “’We don’t believe test-optional policies are worth the paper they’re written on,’ Taylor said. ’If one kid has great test scores and one kid has no test scores, all else being equal, the kid with great test scores will win every time over the kid with no test scores. As long as the school allows the submission of the scores, then they’re not telling it like it is. They’re not really test-optional.’”

We Took Heat for Calling “Test-Optional” Policies Meaningless

It’s a quote that elicited a string of critical emails on the NACAC listserv. Of course, we received dozens of emails from fellow members that went something like this: “You’re absolutely right. Of course you’re right. It’s only logical. These holier than thou people probably know you’re right, too. Good for you to stand up to them. I’d do the same but they eat you alive on the listserv if you dare disagree with them.” And while it’s likely unsurprising to many of our longtime readers, we held our ground. When they put up a stink of how dare we question the candor of admissions officers who tout the notion that students without test scores will be at no disadvantage in the admissions process under their newly announced “test-optional” policies, we reminded them that admissions officers are not holier than thou. After all, admissions officers at some of our nation’s elite universities once used quotas to limit the number of Jewish students on their campuses. Many of these same schools continue to discriminate against Asian American applicants today — as the judge’s ruling in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University case made clear. Many of these same schools continue to offer significant preference in admission to legacy applicants who are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly affluent. No, as history suggests, these admissions officers are not holier than thou. Far from it.

But A Freudian Slip by Cornell’s Admissions Leader in the Press Suggests “Test-Optional” Policies Are Indeed Meaningless

But after all of those emails on the NACAC listserv filled with righteous indignation, the truth has come out. And, well, the truth substantiates our claim that, all else being equal, a student with a great SAT or ACT test score has an advantage over a student with no SAT or ACT test score at a “test-optional” institution. So how has the truth come out? Well, some weeks ago, Cornell University’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Jonathan Burdick offered a gem to The New York Times. 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.” Oh, Mr. Burdick, who ever would have given these applicants the crazy idea that they had an equal chance of admission without test scores? It’s not as though it serves the interest of Cornell for unqualified applicants to apply only to then be rejected? It’s not as though that would lower Cornell’s admission rate and ultimately boost its all-important US News & World Report ranking? Oh wait…that would all serve Cornell’s interest.

The Numbers Also Substantiate the Notion that “Test-Optional” Policies Are Meaningless

But beyond Mr. Burdick’s refreshingly forthright quote offered to The New York Times, let’s zero in on the numbers for the few elite universities that have actually released admissions data on the percentage of students admitted with and without test scores. In a fantastic piece out today in The Wall Street Journal by Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin entitled “College Admission Season Is Crazier Than Ever. That Could Change Who Gets In.,” they write, “The University of Pennsylvania admitted 15% of those who applied in its binding early-decision round. While about two-thirds of the applications included test scores, three-quarters of those admitted did.” And boom goes the dynamite. Let’s dissect that last sentence. 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. So, yes, students who submitted test scores to UPenn this past Early Decision cycle held a statistically significant advantage in the admissions process over those who did not. And it’s not as though UPenn is alone. While most elite universities have, unsurprisingly, not released such data, the couple of institutions that have published the numbers clearly demonstrate they favor applicants with test scores. As an example, at Georgetown University, 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.

Yes, the numbers tell the story. And so too do the Freudian slips by admissions leaders shared by our nation’s respected journalists.

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