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Columbia, William & Mary extend test-optional college admissions

The movement to end requirements for SAT or ACT scores, accelerated by the pandemic, is sinking deeper roots

A student guide leads a campus tour for prospective students and their families in fall 2021 at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
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At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, many prominent colleges and universities suspended requirements for SAT or ACT scores. But they hedged what appeared to be a radical shift, emphasizing that the test-optional admission rules were only temporary in light of the public health emergency.

Now, a growing number of selective and ultra-selective schools are extending those measures for multiple years or even indefinitely.

Columbia University, in New York, on Wednesday became the first Ivy League school to declare a full test-optional policy without any time limits. William & Mary, in Virginia, took the same step Thursday after analyzing results of a three-year trial.

“We want to empower students with more flexibility to demonstrate their talent when applying,” Tim Wolfe, the public university’s dean of admission, said in a statement. “Our admission process is comprehensive and multifaceted. As we found through the pilot, we continue to enroll highly qualified students — with or without a standardized test score — capable of succeeding academically and in contributing to the William & Mary community.”

FairTest, an organization critical of the SAT and ACT, counts more than 1,700 colleges and universities that are test-optional. Crucially, though, many of those policies are temporary. More than 200 schools have suspended testing requirements only for students entering in fall 2023, according to FairTest, and have not announced a testing policy that would apply to students who are now high school juniors.

Huge numbers of college-bound students still take the ACT and SAT every year. For them, test-optional policies pose a sometimes-vexing challenge: Should they submit scores or not? Many worry it will hurt their chances, especially at upper-tier schools, if they withhold scores. They also worry that, without scores, they might lose out on scholarships.

Another cadre of colleges and universities do not consider SAT or ACT scores even if applicants submit them. These test-free schools — more than 80, according to FairTest — include campuses of the University of California and California State University.

Harvard goes test-optional through 2026 as movement grows

The College Board, which oversees the SAT, and the ACT both contend that scores provide useful data for admission officers when considered in proper context alongside high school courses and grades and other factors in an application.

“Scores from college admissions tests like the ACT remain the only measure of academic readiness that is standardized and comparable across districts and states,” Janet Godwin, chief executive of ACT, said in a statement.

Priscilla Rodriguez, a College Board senior vice president, said in a statement: “We are pleased that students will continue to have the option of putting their best foot forward and submitting scores. And students want that choice.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University have reinstated test requirements for admission. Georgetown University and major public universities in Florida and Georgia also require the SAT or ACT.

Many schools have taken a wait-and-see approach, suspending their test-score requirements for one or two years at a time. The University of Virginia and the University of Maryland at College Park are both test-optional for students applying to enter through fall 2025.

For colleges that are not especially competitive, test scores are still often used to determine who receives merit scholarships.

For those that are more competitive, the influence of scores is more complex. Strong scores can corroborate strong grades and rigorous class schedules. But they won’t necessarily secure admission for a candidate who has demonstrable academic soft spots or weaknesses.

William & Mary, with about 6,500 undergraduates on a historic campus in Williamsburg, Va., is on the selective side. It admitted about a third of roughly 18,000 applicants who sought to enter last fall. Until 2020, it had required SAT or ACT scores.

The emergence of the pandemic that year threw testing centers into chaos. William & Mary, like most colleges, suspended testing requirements. It declared that scores were not necessary for admission, merit programs or financial aid.

The university found, after analyzing the performance in college of students who enrolled recently, there was little difference between those applied with SAT or ACT scores versus those who didn’t. Retention rates from freshman to sophomore year were about the same. Grades at William & Mary were slightly lower for those who didn’t submit scores. “But not a lot,” said Michael R. Halleran, a professor of classical studies who participated in the analysis. “And they were still doing pretty well.”

Halleran said a faculty advisory committee unanimously supported continuing the test-optional policy indefinitely. “This is the national trend,” he said. “This is where the world is heading.”

Wolfe, the admission dean, said about 34 percent of those who entered William & Mary last fall applied without test scores. The number who applied for fall 2022 admission rose 27 percent compared to the total two years earlier. Applications rose substantially among prospective students from lower-income families and among those whose parents didn’t go to college.

How test-optional admissions opened the field

However, the policy has not yet made a major change in William & Mary’s demographics. About 11 percent of its incoming freshmen qualify for Pell grants that assist students from lower-income families, federal data show. That is lower than the Pell share at many other public universities. The university says it wants to raise the Pell share of its in-state students, now 17 percent, to 20 percent.

Seeking to dispel myths about the importance of test scores, Wolfe recounted for The Washington Post a few recent admission decisions. In one case, he said, an out-of-state applicant who scored above 1500 on the SAT — 1600 is a perfect mark — fell short of admission. “The test score was strong,” Wolfe said, “but the rest of the stuff, just OK.”

In another case, he described an out-of-state applicant who did not submit scores. The applicant had mostly A’s and a strong course load as well as a performing arts background. Faculty were enthusiastic about the applicant’s artistic talent. “This student stood out a little bit more in the personal qualities and their involvement outside of class,” Wolfe said. The verdict: admission.

Wolfe said outsiders often give too much weight to test scores. What matters most is the totality of the high school record, he said, not three or four hours sitting for a test on a Saturday morning. Wolfe said the university reads and considers the whole application and does not penalize those who don’t submit scores.

Admission officers, he said, “have become pretty adept at saying, ‘Here’s the information I have in this application, and this is what we’re going to go with.’”

Columbia’s announcement appeared to break new ground for the Ivy League. The university said, without timing caveats, that it is test-optional for applicants to its undergraduate college and engineering school. “We have designed our application to afford the greatest possible opportunity and flexibility for students to represent themselves fully and showcase their academic talents, interests and goals,” the statement said. “Standardized testing is not a required component of our application.”

The statement did not explicitly label the policy as “permanent.” But a university official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations said Thursday there are no time limits anymore. Previously, Columbia had said it would be test-optional for students entering through fall 2024.

Among other Ivy schools, Harvard and Princeton universities have suspended admission testing requirements for students entering through fall 2026. Cornell University has said it is test-optional for several of its colleges and schools through fall 2024 — including engineering and arts and sciences — and test-free for certain other programs. The University of Pennsylvania is also test-optional through fall 2024. Temporary test-optional policies at Yale and Brown universities and Dartmouth College, covering applicants only for this fall, are likely to be updated soon.