Supporters of an effort to make national test entrance exams optional for students applying to Colorado public colleges believe the change will open opportunities for a more diverse set of students. Now, critics of the idea have signed onto the effort after a change that would require colleges and universities to provide detailed information on whether the policy is having its intended effect.
The bill, which would allow higher education institutions to make standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional for admissions, passed the Senate Education Committee Wednesday with a 5-2 vote. The bill has already passed the House. The bill heads next to the full Senate.
Prominent education advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform switched from opposing to supporting the bill after the group said the amendment will strengthen reporting to understand whether colleges are enrolling more diverse students and graduating them at rates similar to their peers. The organization, which pushes for issues such as accountability and higher education quality and affordability, objected to the bill because the organization said there were inadequate reporting requirements to analyze whether the policy change was actually going to meet its objective.
Prateek Dutta, the organization’s Colorado policy director, said sponsors listened to concerns.
“We believe that with this policy we need to be really critical to see if it’s working as intended,” Dutta said. “And if it is showing it’s not working, then we hope that there’ll be an option to rectify that.”
Most Colorado high school students take the SAT for free at least once in high school because the state uses it to measure school performance. Many students also use it to meet graduation requirements that they have proficiency in math and literacy. However, test results often correlate strongly with race and family income.
Most of Colorado’s colleges and universities support the shift, including Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado system, and Colorado State University. Nationwide, more than 1,600 schools already have made standardized testing optional to admissions.
Admissions experts from the University of Colorado Boulder testified during the Senate Education Committee hearing that high school grades can help predict whether students are ready for college. And they said the change will help students across the state.
University of Colorado Boulder Executive Director of Admissions Clark Brigger said the change would allow schools to better consider student talents, leadership, and work activities.
“This holistic approach shows you more than a single four-hour test,” Brigger said.
The bill allows schools to choose whether they want to use test scores during student admissions. And several university governing board members attended the hearing and spoke in favor of the bill.
With the amendment, the state would strengthen how far schools must go in reporting the impact the change has on students. The state would publish, beginning in June 2023, whether the change led to a more diverse student body at colleges and universities.
It would require schools to report how many students submitted an ACT or SAT test score compared with those who didn’t and separate that by race, ethnicity, and gender. Schools would also be required to submit how many students who did or didn’t submit test scores continued enrollment and who also graduated. The reporting requirement would also include data on first-generation and Pell-eligible students.
A comprehensive report and analysis of the policy’s impact on students would be provided to lawmakers in June 2027, according to the amendment.
Research shows that this type of change can help those students who are of color and from less privileged backgrounds access college.
A new research study released in the American Educational Research Journal found there was an increase in the number of those students who are of color and low-income at selective private institutions who put into place test-optional policies. The shift yielded measurable, but not dramatic changes in the population of those students.
The researcher of the study noted that test-optional policies would likely need to represent one part of a more comprehensive plan to help diverse students access college opportunities.
But the new research will likely do little to change the tense debate with varying viewpoints and research around whether the tests particularly help low-income and students of color enter college.
Nationally, opponents of the test point to the quality of test preparation available to wealthier students who sometimes pay thousands of dollars to ensure they are ready to score high. Data has shown diverse students still fall behind despite schools focusing on more test preparation. And opponents of the test say the tests are a clearer measure of student background, not learning, and that schools should focus on other measures, such as grades, which show a long history of student achievement.
Opponents of the test point to the quality of test preparation available to wealthier students who sometimes pay thousands of dollars to ensure they are ready to score high. Data has shown diverse students still fall behind despite schools focusing on more test preparation. And opponents of the test say the tests are a clearer measure of student background, not learning, and that schools should focus on other measures, such as grades, which show a long history of student achievement.
And state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, questioned during the committee whether the bill would minimize the state’s efforts to use the test to understand student learning in high school.
“Does this create a threat, a risk to the culture of excellence that we have tried to create?” he said.
Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.