Students would no longer be required to take the SAT or ACT when applying to Colorado’s public colleges under proposed legislation that aims to make higher education more accessible to low-income and first-generation college applicants who often don’t do as well on standardized tests.

State Rep. Cathy Kipp and state Sen. Tammy Story, both Democrats, plan to introduce legislation when the chambers are back in session that would allow public colleges and universities to make the move to test-optional admissions. Students could still submit scores if they chose.

Lawmakers made tests optional for 2021 high school graduates applying to Colorado schools. The coronavirus caused disruptions across the state in accessing the SAT, and state officials waived requirements that schools offer the test. The proposed legislation would make that change permanent.

Allowing test-optional admissions, Kipp said, would increase first-time, low-income, and other underrepresented college-goers at the state’s higher education institutions, most of which endorse the change.

“What we’ve learned is that the test scores are not even a very good indicator of whether kids will be successful in college,” Kipp said. ”So why are we putting this barrier in front of colleges and universities who want to get these kids in who have the potential to be successful?”

But critics of the plan are skeptical that it will do much to level the playing field in college admissions. They say entrance exams provide a standard measure by which colleges can judge readiness among students. 

“You’re removing that objective standard of academic aptitude and replacing it with a subjective standard, which is the GPA,” state Rep. Colin Larson said of the forthcoming bill. “So, I’m worried that we’re going to see the need for remediation go up.”

The Littleton Republican said lawmakers should instead direct more resources toward K-12 schools to help students prepare for college and the tests. 

A Holistic Approach

The support from Colorado colleges and universities for the measure has been near unanimous.

Admissions officials at Fort Lewis College, Adams State University, Metro State University of Denver, and the Colorado School of Mines all said they want to see the change.  The list also includes the University of Colorado system.

The tests would also be optional for students to submit and only if it helps their chances of admission, they said.

Dale Gaubatz, who heads Mines’ admissions office, said colleges and universities have had test requirements for decades, but the number of underrepresented students hasn’t changed much.

The school has a goal to increase diversity and has moved to a more holistic way of looking at admissions, he said, such as extracurriculars or whether a student worked during high school. Gaubatz said school officials believe test optional admissions will allow the school to further its holistic approach.

“And the only real way to actually collect data on test optional admissions is to have test optional admissions,” he said. “The data will give us the ability to make informed decisions that aren’t based on social or political opinions.”

Who Benefits

Studies examining the usefulness of ACT or SAT scores in college admissions have only fueled the debate.

Some research suggests that low-income students and students of color would benefit from dropping SAT and ACT requirements if more consideration is given to high school GPA instead.

The College Board and ACT point to studies that support the need for standardized tests in college admissions. They say simply making tests optional does not necessarily improve racial diversity, particularly if universities use other measures that benefit affluent students. Test scores can also help — slightly — improve predictions about who will do well in college.

But schools that have made tests optional report admitting more low-income and first-generation college students. Among them is the University of Chicago, a highly selective private school that went test optional in the last few years. Its decision also came with increased support for students from underrepresented backgrounds. In Colorado, two private institutions — Colorado College and the University of Denver — don’t require standardized tests as part of admissions.

Story said the research shows GPA to be the best predictor of college success. A single test score on one day also doesn’t represent the academic performance of a student, Story said.

A poor or mediocre SAT or ACT score “doesn’t mean that they’re not academically strong kids or that they’re not focused or driven or persistent,” she said.

Nationwide, more than half of all accredited four-year colleges and universities have made standardized tests optional for admissions.  Many did so as a result of test-taking obstacles caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Debates Over Equity

In Colorado, many students use the SAT to meet graduation requirements that they demonstrate proficiency in English and math. Schools also are required to offer the SAT at no cost to students, with the state using the scores to measure school performance.  That means many students already prepare for the test on an annual basis.

Kyra deGruy Kennedy, Rocky Mountain director of the advocacy organization Young Invincibles, which has pushed for test-optional admissions, said the most recent research presents a strong case.

Often, she said, families must spend thousands of dollars on test preparation for students to do well. That typically favors high-income families, she said.

“If Colorado’s master plan wants to increase equity and access to higher education, this is one barrier that stands in the way of that,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t fix all the problems but it fixes one very clear problem.”

Nathan Cadena, Denver Scholarship Foundation chief operating officer, which helps Denver-area students access college, said the tests “absolutely do not represent a level playing field.” The students he works with who have high GPAs but lower test scores shy away from applying to certain selective colleges.

Two prominent education groups have already expressed concern.

Democrats for Education Reform and the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado oppose the measure.

Ready Colorado President Luke Ragland said making tests optional in the admissions process will have the inverse effect to what advocates want. He said research has shown that diverse and low-income students will instead have a harder time accessing college. 

“It’s going to come down to things like who has had the opportunity to spend the most time at summer camps, and who had extra time to do extracurriculars and had the resources to participate in extracurriculars,” he said.

Kennedy said she understands the need to study how effective the policy would be, and she said the sponsors expect the bill to have a 10-year reporting component.

Democrats for Education Reform State Policy Director Prateek Dutta said the focus should instead be on getting resources to schools with more diverse and low-income populations so they can be better prepared for the SAT. He called the test a “thermometer”  that provides a valuable measure to understand disparities. 

“If we have a fever, we try to solve the fever,” Dutta said. “You don’t destroy the thermometer.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.