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Will colleges’ test-optional policy continue post-pandemic?

Cleveland State University

Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University stopped requiring scores from entrance exams including the ACT and SAT in spring 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applicants’ other criteria, like the rigor of their high school coursework and application essays, are weighed heavier if the scores are absent. About 35% to 40% of CWRU’s most recent applicant class didn’t submit.

“I don’t miss test scores when I read (applicants’) files,” said Rick Bischoff, the university’s vice president for enrollment management.

The shift in the policy, commonly referred to as test-optional, came as testing dates for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT were canceled during lockdowns and the shift to online learning nationwide. While lots of the traditional aspects of college life have returned, at many colleges, standardized testing requirements for applicants haven’t.

As of one December 2021 estimate, more than 1,815 institutions don’t require the submission of scores, a far cry from the 1,070 that were test-optional before COVID-19 began. It marks a new chapter in college admissions as the pandemic and its myriad of impacts continues.

Many colleges in Northeast Ohio implemented similar policies when the pandemic first hit. The majority also experienced big enrollment drops since that time.

All five of Cleveland’s higher education institutions — that’s CWRU, Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Cuyahoga Community College — don’t currently require applicants to submit standardized test scores.

At Case Western Reserve, scores aren’t required to be eligible to receive institutional financial aid, either. A section on its undergrad admissions page spells it out: No catches. No exceptions.

“It brought into our applicant pool a lot of students who previously were not in the pool,” Bischoff said. “Greater ethnic diversity, greater economic diversity, and greater diversity in what students were interested in.”

The question of to submit or not to submit, Bischoff said, is now put directly in the hands of students, families, and high school counselors. The university is offering a test-optional pilot program for classes entering through 2024.

It’s an easy one for high school students enrolled at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where college entrance exams have long been offered to every student.

The test-optional shift makes the entrance exams feel like less of a gatekeeper, according to Anthony Battaglia, the district’s executive director of career and college pathways.

“If you didn’t get a certain score you couldn’t get in; that’s not inherently true anymore,” he said. “There still may be barriers to access higher education, but it’s a lessened barrier. The less barriers, the more confident our students feel.”

On paper, standardized testing can offer a uniform metric to evaluate a student’s performance. But in addition to just being one test taken on one day, those assessments can also be biased.

“Statistically, underrepresented students in almost every category perform lower than their overrepresented peers,” Battaglia said. “We serve an underrepresented population, so statistically, our students do worse on those assessments.”

Battaglia applauds work he said the College Board, parent company of the SAT, is doing to examine its practices on that front. That takes time, though.

Many researchers have documented how standardized tests can give white and wealthier students an advantage. One recent report from the Brookings think tank, for example, found SAT math scores largely reflect — and then reinforce — racial inequality.

“Standardized tests and other factors such as the idea of ‘demonstrated fit’ are measures that privilege certain populations of students and exclude others,” Yvette Sobky Shaffer, vice president of enrollment management and marketing at the Cleveland Institute of Art, told Crain’s Cleveland Business via email.

CIA announced it’d be going test-optional in 2017. Jonathan Wehner was there at the time. He now works as vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success at Cleveland State University.

He still thinks there’s a place for standardized testing. The thought, he surmises, probably puts him in the minority of his colleagues.

But he feels there are still positive elements, like serving as placement exams for students’ first-year college courses. He’s concerned about “throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” especially when it comes to the role he believes exams can serve as a pipeline for traditionally underrepresented populations.

“When we think about first-gen, or Black students, or Hispanic students and the profound impact that taking the test and then being recruited by colleges and universities has on their likelihood to apply, enroll and graduate from college, to me, that’s a huge element around standardized testing,” he said.

Cleveland State hasn’t made its current test-optional policy permanent. Its faculty senate is currently weighing a decision for the fall 2023 semester.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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