Higher Ed’s growing test-optional movement and its impact on technology

Higher Ed’s growing test-optional movement and its impact on technology

By Katie Lynch-Holmes on Thursday, September 3, 2015

Perhaps you were one of those students who got straight A’s but froze up during the three hours and 45 minutes spent in your high school cafeteria taking the SAT or ACT. And perhaps as a result, you had to rethink your first-choice college.

If so, you have not only my sympathy, but that of thousands of students, parents, academics, and researchers who have long argued that post-secondary schools prioritize good test-taking over year-round achievement. Advocates for educational justice within American higher education also argue that standardized tests are a barrier for entry among at-risk populations.

In the past few years, these arguments have gained considerable traction with admissions officers. George Washington University (GWU) recently announced its new test-optional admissions policy, joining 180+ top tier schools that have officially “de-emphasized” SAT/ACT scores[1]. (The full list includes 800+ four-year schools.)

To be fair, GWU and other institutions say they have always considered test scores just one of many admission factors. But the question “What did you get on your SAT or ACT?” still holds undeniable power. Students ask each other. Parents can’t help comparing their kid’s score to those of other classmates. The question even comes up playfully between friends years after college graduation.

However, test-optional schools are changing the dialogue. They are heeding research showing that factors other than test scores are stronger predictors of student success. They are addressing concerns that desirable applicants are taking themselves out of the running because they think their scores aren’t good enough. And they are working harder to achieve educational justice and increase diversity.

I am finding the test-optional movement an increasingly frequent topic of discussion with clients. Not only its impact on student success and retention, but the implications for higher-ed technology. Some things to consider if you are looking to change your admissions strategy and want to ensure appropriate support:

  • Data and analytics matter more than ever: Going test-optional is both a risk and an opportunity. To minimize the cost of change, and maximize learning, institutions need to utilize reliable data, predictive modeling, and even historical analytics. Recruiting and admissions staff need readily-accessible answers to questions such as: What is the correlation between standardized test scores and the success of currently enrolled students? Are we able to pinpoint more precisely what type of student thrives at our institution? Are we attracting applicants that fit this profile? Are we increasing diversity? Is the new approach impacting our recruitment numbers? Should we widen our scope?

  • Flexibility is key: “Test-optional,” “test-flexible,” and “de-emphasizing testing” mean different things to different schools. And colleges and universities are still experimenting with the ideal criteria for recruiting and admissions. Solutions need to be both configurable and extensible—empowering end users to get what they need without relying extensively on one person or on IT. User-friendly technology will be essential to reducing costs and speeding innovation as schools test new models.

  • Think beyond admissions: Often student success and retention depend heavily on what happens after a student is enrolled. Many institutions have identified strategies that work best based on a particular student profile. Prior to implementing a test-optional approach, colleges and universities must assess these strategies and determine the best time to begin providing services to incoming and current students. If test-optional schools achieve their goals of increasing diversity and attracting students with different skill sets, they will need to address the variance. Orientation, advising, early alerts and interventions—and the technology that supports these activities—are all likely to evolve.

I have been fortunate to work with leading institutions on student success—some implementing test-optional admissions policies and using technology to learn and improve this strategy over time. At Ellucian, we are using this learning to ensure our technology is ready to support the growing number of colleges and universities that join this movement.


[1]U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Guide (2015 Edition); List includes institutions that are “test-optional,” “test-flexible,” or de-emphasize standardized tests.

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About the Author

Katie Lynch-Holmes

Katie Lynch-Holmes

Principal Strategic Consultant, Ellucian

Katie works strategically with Ellucian’s higher education clients to improve student success through best practices and technology integration.