As the college application deadline approached last year, Hilary Cabrera Orozco braced herself for disappointment.
The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants and an almost straight student, had her heart set on attending Cornell University, the elite campus in upstate New York where her older cousin was already enrolled.
But her SAT scores were disheartening.
“It was humbling,” said Cabrera Orozco, 18, a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School in Westchester County, just north of New York. “I worked hard all my years in high school, and then a test will determine if I’m good enough for a school. I feel like that’s a bit unfair.
What Cabrera Orozco didn’t realize was that the pandemic that had disrupted his high school years led college admissions offices across the country — including Cornell — to waive standardized testing requirements. The change — perhaps the biggest upheaval in college admissions since the SAT and ACT were first widely required more than 50 years ago — has become a large-scale experiment, with high stakes for colleges and their future students.
“It’s a sea change in the way admissions decisions are made,” said Robert Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of how standardized tests are used. “The pandemic has created a natural experience. Colleges were forced to see how elective testing worked.
Voluntary and blind admissions had begun to gain momentum before the pandemic, with proponents arguing that the tests were hurting the chances of applicants who had traditionally not done so well, including students whose first language is not English, students whose parents did not go to college, black and Hispanic students, immigrant students, and students whose families cannot afford expensive test preparation programs.
But when the pandemic made it difficult to administer these tests safely, the wave of elective testing became a tsunami. Almost every freshman in the country today — and nearly every high school student hoping to start next fall — was able to apply without submitting a score.
MIT recently made headlines when it announced it would resume requiring applicants to submit grades, in part because MIT leaders believe the tests can help identify talented students whose situation in high school affected their grades. Hundreds of other institutions, such as the campuses of the University of California and California State University, have gone the other way, permanently adopting elective testing or on-site testing policies. ‘blind.
But many of the most competitive colleges, including those in the Ivy League, are still collecting data and watching how the experiment unfolds.
“We’re going to study this first cohort,” Jon Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment, said of the current freshman class. “We’re going to study this next cohort and try to disentangle and unpack in a legit model what kind of effects created what kinds of outcomes.”
“I knew I had the potential”
Before the pandemic, Burdick watched curiously as a growing number of mostly small, private liberal arts schools stopped requiring standardized testing, but that was not something Cornell was seriously considering.
When the health crisis closed testing sites in 2020, four of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges decided to take the test as an option, meaning students could submit a test result if they thought it would help them. , but were not required to do so. Three of Cornell’s colleges have adopted blind testing policies, which means admissions officers would not look at any student’s scores.
The effects were immediate, Burdick said. Like many other colleges and universities, Cornell was inundated with applications – about 71,000 compared to 50,000 in a typical year.
And new applications — especially those that arrived without attached test scores — were far more likely to come from “students who have felt historically left out,” Burdick said.
The university has always considered many factors in making admissions decisions, and low test scores have never been singularly disqualifying, Burdick said. But it became clear that students had self-rejected, deciding not to apply to places like Cornell because they thought their lower SAT scores meant they couldn’t get in, he said. .
Other colleges have also seen a similar increase in applications.
“If I had to include my score, I wouldn’t have applied to the schools I applied to,” said Kate Hidalgo, 19, who said her immigrant family in Elmsford, New York, also in Westchester , didn’t know she could start taking and preparing for the SAT in ninth grade to improve her score. “I knew I had the potential, but I didn’t have the resources that others had.”
When disappointing SAT scores came in, she started revising her list of schools, until her advisor at Latino U College Access, which helps first-generation Latinos get into college, told her that her test scores would not be required.
She ended up getting into many top schools, eventually choosing a full scholarship to the University of Rochester (which moved to optional admissions in 2019). She is involved in student government and enjoys her classes.
“I thrive here,” she says.
At Cornell, managing the surge in apps hasn’t been easy, Burdick said. The university hired several admissions officers and a dozen part-time application readers, paid for in part by additional application fees.
Staff developed a numerical system to compare high school grades, with candidates getting more points if they took more difficult courses.
Ultimately, Cornell enrolled a more diverse class, including a nearly 50% increase in the share of first-generation students. “It showed me that these students, given the opportunity, can show really impressive competitive credentials and gain admission with the test barrier reduced or eliminated,” Burdick said.
An “enlightening” experience
Research on colleges that took optional tests years ago shows that students admitted without test scores come from more diverse backgrounds and do about as well in their classes once they arrive as peers who have submitted test results. Admissions directors at top colleges are watching closely to see how these policies play out on their campuses.
Yale University had previously studied the value of SAT and ACT scores and found that higher scores predicted better academic achievement, even when researchers controlled for other factors, said Mark Dunn, Yale’s associate director of admissions. .
But now that the pandemic has prompted Yale to make the test optional, researchers are studying a new set of data and administrators plan to give the experiment a bit more time.
“It’s been really illuminating and instructive to be frankly forced into this policy,” Dunn said.
The University of Chicago decided to pilot elective admissions in 2018 to broaden diversity and was thrilled with the results, said Veronica Hauad, associate director of admissions. The current freshman class is 56% more black students, 26% more Hispanic and Latino students, 33% more rural students, and 36% more first-generation students than the last class enrolled before the policy change.
The University of Chicago had to increase its financial aid budget by 37% to help students from low-income families, but that was part of the college’s commitment to diversity, Hauad said.
“For many students from many backgrounds, underrepresented or not, you come to college and you meet people who are nothing like you,” she said. “And it’s really eye-opening.”
The race for fairness
The organizations that make the SAT and ACT acknowledge that wealthier, whiter students do better on exams on average than other groups of students, but they say the tests only measure inequality in the education system of the country, without being the cause.
“Abandoning the use of objective assessments like the ACT or SAT introduces greater subjectivity and uncertainty into the admissions process,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin.
Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of the College Board, which makes the SAT, noted in a statement that many other factors considered in college admissions are affected by wealth and privilege, as families can hire writing coaches and admissions counselors and many schools give preference to children of former students.
“In contrast, the SAT is available to all students, free to practice, and free to low-income students,” Rodriguez said, also noting that student grade point averages have increased at some high schools, making unreliable ratings. measure.
Craig Robinson, CEO of College Possible, a nonprofit that helps first-generation students access and succeed in college, worries that optional testing policies will lead some schools to decide their equity work is completed and failing to make other necessary changes, such as making college more affordable and ending admission preferences for children of former students.
“We would be wrong to think that this decision or this trend will be a game changer and address years of systemic inequality in admissions,” he said, but added that the drop in test scores is a good one. start.
Cabrera Orozco credits Cornell’s optional testing policy with the good news she received last month, inviting her to join the university’s class of 2026. She hopes the policy will continue.
“It gives more opportunities to children who are doing very well in school,” she said, “who are unable to take the test five times to get the highest score.”