Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

Is Your Test-Optional Policy a Hot Mess?

Episode 77

October 26, 2021 30 minutes


Many institutions adopted test-optional admissions policies out of necessity in the early days of the pandemic. EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer, an expert with more than 25 years of experience leading university admissions teams, says those hastily constructed policies are well-intentioned, but many are poorly defined.

She and fellow EAB enrollment guru, Michael Koppenheffer, discuss different sides of the debate over the value of standardized test scores as well as the challenge of comparing apples to apples when evaluating the academic performance of students across different counties or states. They also share their top recommendations for enrollment leaders on how to codify and articulate their test-optional policies, so they are more easily understood by prospective students and their families.



0:00:11.5 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today look back over the most recent admission cycle to assess how colleges and universities are handling test-optional admissions policies. In short, it’s a hot mess. Two of EAB’s enrollment gurus break down the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of how schools are operationalizing and communicating those policies to prospective students and their families. Thank you for listening and enjoy.

0:00:47.7 Michael Koppenheffer: Hello, everybody, and welcome to office hours with EAB. My name is Michael Koppenheffer, and I serve as vice president for marketing programs here at EAB. And I’m joined today by my friend, Madeleine Rhyneer, who’s the Dean of Enrollment Management for EAB. Hello, Madeleine.

0:01:06.9 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hey, Michael, thanks so much, it’s great to be here with you.

0:01:11.5 MK: Likewise. It’s especially great because we just recently hosted another episode of Office Hours with EAB, which was so much fun. Just a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about channel overload, the range of digital channels that today’s students are using to learn about and narrow down the list of colleges they’re applying to. So that was fun, but I think we are up to discuss another topic today. Another trend that is having a pretty big impact on the world of enrollment for students, for families, and of course for institutions. And that is the move to test-optional admissions.

0:01:54.5 MR: So, boy, you’ve got that in one and it’s great, we love these to be 20 to 30-minute episodes, and I feel like for many of you in the trenches, you could spend days trying to plumb the depths of what the test-optional movement looks like, what it will really mean going forward, what’s the best way to prepare your staff and your institution for it? So we’re pretty excited to have that chance to talk about it, and a lot of things happened last year in the pandemic, there were a lot of fast moving decisions and institutions and individual teams are to be commended for the incredible way that they were able to adapt quickly. But as there are some continuing trends that we’re observing at EAB and certainly through our partner base, we know that test taking is kicking up again, but students also have become a little bit more sophisticated about managing their scores and thinking about whether to submit them or not.

0:02:47.2 MR: So you have to think about that, and you also have to think about if you had a short-term shift to test score optional, what’s your case of proof? What’s the timeframe you’re operating in? And then really, we also wanna talk a little bit about what’s happening in the broader market and how that’s impacting students and families when they’re thinking about not just testing, but about submitting their tests, and how it is that institutions can do everything possible to help in the manner in which they communicate to students and families.

0:03:20.1 MK: A complicated situation, to be sure, I don’t envy our enrollment leaders who are trying to navigate this landscape. And I certainly, like you, have seen a bunch of enrollment teams do a really great job pivoting on short notice to figure out how they can afford the maximum opportunity to students and families, given all the disruption in the country and in the world. So why don’t we start actually with some pretty basic definitions? Because test-optional is college and admissions jargon, but it may not be as clear to some as we might think. So Madeleine, tell me what is test-optional? What’s a test-optional policy?

0:04:00.5 MR: So I have a technical term for test-optional, Michael, and that’s hot mess. Because I think the description of test-optional and how that’s played out for families, it’s an unintentional and a well-intentioned hot mess, but I think a hot mess nonetheless. So let me just start at the range of the most defined to lesser defined, and help me if you think I’m forgetting any of our permutations or combinations, so there’s truly test blind. So think about the new policy that the University of California has announced where you’re not going to submit a test score, you’re not going to be able to submit a test score. If by some miracle, you talk about a test score, the people will not hear or see the test score, a test score will absolutely not be part of the admission decision. So truly blind, truly oblivious to any scores that a student may or may not have. Then when you slip into test-optional, they’re what I call the many flavors of test-optional.

0:05:01.2 MR: So in many cases, test-optional could mean, I can choose to apply without submitting a test score for admission to all programs, or some programs ’cause some programs, there are still some preferences of some programs to continue to require students to have a test score, so that’s kind of a combination out there. Then add on the layer of a potential for an academic or merit scholarship, so at some institutions test-optional means also full consideration for academic scholarships. At other institutions, it means full consideration for a range of academic scholarships but not all of them. And if you want our most, this is my word, elite scholarships, maybe a couple of full-tuition grants or the president’s or chancellor’s award, you would have to submit a test score to be considered for that. One of my personal favorites is, “You may certainly choose to apply test-optional, but you’ll need to write an essay instead, in lieu, of your SAT or ACT scores.” And I’ve kind of laughed every time I see that, because there’s probably no young person on the planet that really wants to take the SAT or ACT, but they’d probably rather do that than write another essay for a college application, and this would be a separate essay on top of any essays required through the common application or an institutional application.

0:06:17.4 MK: That’s so true, Madeleine, and it’s funny as you say that because I have so much sympathy for everyone involved. Because the schools that are imposing these requirements are doing it for a very good reason, which is that they want a different measure to assess academic quality, or they need to use tests to assess academic quality to or limited scholarships and grants. And yet if you are the student sitting on the other end of that, it is just listening to you explain that can be so confusing, and I have to think that is a barrier for some kids to even apply when they see that kind of complexity.

0:06:51.8 MR: Well, I think the problem is, so when you think about a student’s life, when he or she is a senior in high school, and I have a short list of colleges and I’m applying, they still have a full-time job with is being a high school student, and we hope doing well, continuing to acquire knowledge, so they’ll actually be well set up to be successful when they get to the college of their choice. So the more that we make it complicated for them as they apply, meaning having a lot of rules, caveats or asterisks, those are my favorites, the harder it is and we make it for students to actually comply.

0:07:25.8 MR: And you have to have impugn good intent, they’re trying to do the right thing, their parents are trying to do the right thing but in some cases, it almost requires an advanced degree to understand testing policies on some websites that I’ve had the chance to look at. And when you talk about barriers, Michael, I think that’s a really important word, and some schools have adopted sort of what I would call the most liberal of policies, I would call it that everybody wins policy, and it’s sometimes referred to as “Do no harm”. So submit a test score if you like, don’t submit a test score, if you don’t like, we will consider you for admission with whatever we have. If you choose to submit a test score later, if that were to potentially qualify you for a larger scholarship, you would get it, if your test score was a little bit concerning, we’re still not removing an offer of admission.”

0:08:17.2 MR: So the do-no-harm situation is actually, I think in many ways, other than the University of California being completely blind, is the most family-friendly, because I don’t have to figure out what’s best. If I’ve signed up and asked to have my test score sent to you, then I don’t have to have a personal meltdown like, “Oh, dear heavens, now that I have my score, and they have it, too, this could be a disadvantage for me.” So if schools have the capacity to think on the most liberal side, “We’ll consider you with a score, we’ll consider you without a score, we’re gonna offer you admission, give you the benefit of the doubt,” the tie always goes to the applicant in this case. And it means that I don’t have to read all of the whys and wherefores. I can just either send a score or not send a score, and I don’t have to worry about it.

0:09:06.3 MR: And I think, to your point about barriers, Michael, I think in the long run, this will kind of shake out. People had to make decisions very quickly, they did the very best that they could, they’re trying to serve both the families and students who are applicants in their own internal communities. I think over time, as institutions who went on pilot projects get more information, they’ll either develop a level of comfort or they won’t, and things will sort of normalize. I think it will get better but in the short term, it’s not easy, I think, for families.

0:09:38.1 MK: Why is it then that many institutions are creating these versions of test-optional policies that are not as family-friendly. So I really like the version you articulated which was the, “It’s fine if you submit, it’s fine if you don’t, benefit of the doubt goes to the applicant.” But so many of what we see in working with our partners, when we look at schools across the country, is a much more complicated version, more akin to what you were explaining earlier where you can not submit a test score, but then you need to do something else instead, or you can not submit a test score unless you’re applying to the school of nursing or unless you want a scholarship. So why are schools ending up in this more complex version, what’s behind that?

0:10:19.2 MR: Well, I think I sort of alluded to it a minute ago, enrollment leaders are serving many masters, they’re serving the president, they’re serving their board, they’re serving faculty members. And it’s interesting, as I was prepping for this webinar, I went back and read a monograph by one of the testing agencies, and they actually said that test scores have proven to be quite predictive of success in certain majors. And I think, “Well, that’s probably true,” and my guess is it’s in those same majors that faculty have been the most resistant, and when I say resistant, what I really mean is, anxious about, “If I don’t have this X criteria, what will be the criteria that will replace it effectively, so we make good decisions?”

0:11:02.6 MR: ‘Cause no one wants students to come and not be successful, it’s not all self-interest, some of this really is interested in the student success. So I think that in some cases that it’s inertia, in some cases, it’s anxiety about, “What will replace the test score that I know and love, and that is very predictive for me, if I’m a faculty member making decisions about admission to a particular college or program?” I think sometimes test scores are one of the few things that are sort of nationally quantifiable, ’cause GPAs are not, curriculums are not. If you have advanced placement takers and test scores, that sort of thing is nationally scalable.

0:11:44.4 MR: I think some institutions have been worried, frankly, about “What will be my rating in the US News and World Report?” And even though test scores have diminished definitely in that criteria, they’re still there, and some people still believe that that’s very important, even if students and parents are feeling like maybe that’s less important. So I think it’s kind of all over the map, and I think it’s an opportunity internally for some great conversations about, “What is it we really need, what’s in our best interests, so we make sure that we have students who will be successful.” But also, “What’s in the best interests of the families and students we’re serving?”

0:12:21.1 MK: Yeah, what you’re saying really resonates with me, Madeleine. I don’t know if you know this, but my dad was a college professor and his concern was for the quality of the students, because he wanted the students to succeed, and he also wanted to be able to teach at the level that he preferred to teach at. And so thinking about how some of the constituencies on campus are very nervous about losing test scores as an indicator of ability really makes sense to me. And I have to imagine, like you’re saying, the way to get past that is through a real conversation where you talk about other pathways by which the school might assess the ability of potential students as well. And as our listeners no doubt know, you are an experienced practitioner of admissions and enrollment, and so I view you as an expert on this topic, how might a school assess applicants’ academic ability in a way that they really believe in, other than looking at their SAT scores or their ACT scores?

0:13:23.9 MR: Well, the thing that’s hard is, so whether one likes an SAT score or an ACT score or not, they’re nationally scalable because as one of the things we love about our great country, all education is local, so curriculum is local, and how many APs, if you offer AP, or IB, or some other form of accelerated education, all of those choices are made at a local level. The grading scales are at a local level, as is the naming convention for what high school courses are actually called, that can be the most challenging sometimes for application readers. Like, “What is this? Is this a history course? Is it a social science course? Help me understand.” ‘Cause teachers have some very creative ways of naming, which is cool, and it get students in those courses, but it doesn’t mean outsiders always understand.

0:14:10.7 MR: So I think the key hurdle that everyone is trying to overcome is, “If everything else is up for grabs and not scalable in a national way, what kind of a rubric can you create that will be effective and help to serve as a proxy for those SAT or ACT scores?” So if a student has taken a number of AP courses or IB courses, because they’re offered at their school, and they have scores that you can see or at least at a minimum, you can see the grade they earned in the course, often that can provide a level of comfort, because there’s a set curriculum that is attached to that, and a college professor could feel some confidence about it.

0:14:51.7 MR: But, gosh, let’s say that I’m Madeleine and I live in a rural area of Iowa or in Indiana, and my school is a very good school, and I love my teachers, but we don’t have AP or IB courses, ’cause it’s just not big enough to offer that. Well, the challenge is for colleges and universities, kids live where they live, and so the idea is, “Has Madeleine maximized all of the potential courses available to her in her community?” And maybe she sat for a college course at a community college, if there is one proximal to try for academic enhancement. So I think it’s leaning on your admission team, who are very skilled with this, to try and have a good understanding about the local educational background. And did Madeleine take everything that was possible? And we have had other applicants from Madeleine’s school, and we either had success with those students or we didn’t, if they came to campus and were not very successful academically. All of those things, which again, are much more subjective, but you can…

0:15:55.6 MK: I’m glad to hear you say that, ’cause as I was listening to you, I was just thinking that in some ways offers a more personalized view of every applicant, ’cause it accounts for the local circumstances, but it’s also so much more subjective and so much more hard work. It really helps you understand in some ways what the value of the SAT and ACT are to admissions professionals, because it does take out a certain amount of the school level subjectivity, it does provide more than a bit of a shorthand for assessing academic ability. And in some ways, you might argue that there’s more fairness, at least less subjectivity, in a standardized measure than in what any given admissions counselor might think of a child’s high school. And so it’s kind of funny that in some cases, schools are pursuing test-optional policies motivated by fairness, in addition to responding to the overall pandemic circumstances and in those cases, they might be moving from one form of subjectivity to another form of subjectivity.

0:17:04.2 MR: Well, you’re right. When colleges and universities talk about assessing candidates holistically, I mean, if you’re really cynical, holistically is just another word for subjectively, because there’s so much subjectivity, and especially if you’re talking about the most competitive schools that are admitting 5% or 7% of their applicants, a much higher percentage of the candidates are academically-qualified and would be personally great contributors. So it really does sort of get down to, “Did you need a bassoon player?” Everyone needs a bassoon player every year. It’s this sort of thing.

0:17:42.8 MR: So it’s many of these factors that students don’t actually control. And it doesn’t matter how many times enrollment leaders talk about one of the key factors in the most highly competitive places for admission, in terms of who gets in and who doesn’t, is who else applies, and you don’t control that. You can only control the piece that you do but, of course, that just drives families crazy, ’cause they have worked so hard, taking test prep courses, getting good grades, having summer jobs and summer experiences that really prep you for having a resume that will look very exciting when you’re applying to college. And then it’s like, “Well, sure, but I don’t control what everybody else did.” That can be a little bit daunting, I think.

0:18:25.5 MR: But the other thing we haven’t really mentioned, and I just wanna touch on this for a second, is in a research project that we did at EAB, a pretty substantial percentage of students from under-represented groups, told us last year that they specifically applied to schools that were test-optional. And you have to stop and think about that for a minute. So we do know often for low income families, they test late. They’re only gonna test once and they wanna get as much knowledge under their belt. So if that was your strategy for the fall of ’21, you were kind of screwed because you didn’t really have the opportunity to test late, or ’20. And so to actually have students say, “I chose schools, I singularly applied to them because I didn’t have to submit a test score,” that really hit to the couple of things that are, I think deeply seeded in the psyche of many students.

0:19:15.2 MR: First of all, nobody believes college admissions is fair. They didn’t believe it before Varsity Blues, but they surely don’t believe it now, ’cause there’s verifiable proof that people are buying their way in. And they also, I think, sometimes think that for the SAT, depending on my school, what high school I went to, or the ACT, that I may just not do well on it. “At my school, people tend not to.” And then that’s the barrier for me, and it becomes a stigma that I have to live with. So I’m not gonna… I’m not qualified to comment on any sort of racial or ethnic barriers of standardized testing, but there’s a felt barrier, and I think it’s important for institutions to think about that a bit.

0:19:56.6 MK: I’m really glad you brought that up, because that is the counterpoint about the fairness value of test-optional policies, is that there is empirical evidence in the world that in some cases, populations of students that are under-represented tend to apply test-optional at disproportionate numbers because of the barriers that you pointed to. And there is also other ample literature suggesting that those same students tend to, on average, perform lower on standardized tests, even if their academic qualifications are identical and their future success is identical. So, there is that powerful equity argument to the test-optional policies as well, which if… And whether it’s because of the pandemic or it’s because of a commitment to equity, you might argue that the schools that went test-optional, they may as well try to communicate what they’re doing as effectively as possible to try to drive the results they want. And part of what I’m wondering, and I have something in my mind, is when you’ve seen the schools we work with, other colleges around the country communicate test-optional, irrespective of the specifics, how well do you think they’re doing?

0:21:07.5 MR: I still think it’s complicated. Again, I went on to some websites as I was thinking about this webinar, ’cause I was thinking about some sites I visited early in the pandemic just to try and help people who had to make a quick switch, sort of think through how would you share this information with families who are just completely freaking out about the possibilities, and what I realized is there still are a number of caveats out there. I was looking on one website today, and they had some broad header categories like, “What about this? What about this?” which you think is super helpful, just in terms of finding, but in many places, it was highlighted, “Talk with your admission counselor.” And I thought, I might be reading this at 2:00 AM ’cause I’m a kid and I’m up late, and I’m probably not… God bless, I’m talking to my admission counselor at 2:00 AM and I was thinking, it’s hard if you actually have to talk to someone to figure out what’s the best thing to do.

0:22:02.4 MR: And again, I don’t wanna minimize the value of human contact, but I also think if the step simpler is better, more straightforward is better, to try and have as few exceptions as possible. Maybe you can find your way into the do-no-harm category because you would like to see some test scores. Maybe you wanna go into the University of California system to be entirely test blind, we’re just not gonna be influenced by testing at all. It isn’t that any one of those is the right answer, but both of them are much more straightforward to explain, especially test blind. Test blind is super easy. Some people are not gonna believe you in the do-no-harm version, but I think it’s worth a try.

0:22:48.0 MK: I could not agree more ’cause it’s funny, I did a similar exercise to you, I went and did some secret shopping for the 2021 version of test-optional, and I found that the places I dropped in on, by and large, did a pretty serviceable job explaining their policies, but I think the difference is, what are those policies? And unfortunately, it’s easier to say something clearer than to clarify an institutional policy that affects the whole campus. However, I completely concur that I think the right path is that, if you’re going to be test-optional, that you figure out how to truly have as few exceptions as possible, and do it in as clear and student and family-friendly way as possible, which then requires you to come up with solutions like you’re talking about earlier to those real needs. Like, how do I allocate these scarce merit scholarships? If I don’t have the test score to normalize, what are the other measures that I can use?

0:23:45.8 MR: Another thing I just wanna point out, Michael, is, I’ve sort of been talking along the places where you see challenges on websites are schools that had to make a quick decision, but that’s not true. I actually researched some schools that had been historically test score optional and they were totally in the hot mess category of the way that they described it. So what I guess my gratuitous advice would be, this is an issue, whether you had to make a quick switch or not, because again, if you have that, you have to read way down into the pros on a web page to find out, “Oh, if I don’t submit a test score, I’m gonna have to write an essay.”

0:24:22.1 MR: First of all, I think that’s maybe not your best play, but I think having to go so far to find it is difficult. And, Michael, you and I talk a lot about communication, nobody reads very much. I’m starting to feel that way myself. Like if you could have three bullet points on your test score optional that basically covered like 95% of the water, it would be a huge win, whatever those bullet points were, for your institution, because it would be right at the top, it would be easy to find, you could drop them in emails, you could text them to people, and it would make your life probably as well as some family lives better.

0:24:58.0 MK: Totally agree. And yet, I know for so many universities, for so many colleges, that’s an awfully tall order because of all the political complexities, all the stakeholders on campus that would have to align to make that happen. So wouldn’t it just be easier to get rid of test-optional altogether, once the pandemic recedes, as we all hope that it will, and just go back to test score required next year? Do you see that happening a lot?

0:25:25.8 MR: So that is a super interesting question because again, testing volume will go back up, and it has already gone back up. There was unsuppressed demand, most definitely. The thing that’s interesting though, is I think that students and families got a lot more sophisticated about how to play my test score if I have one. And so yeah, I guess you could say, sure, make everybody take it. I do believe there’s still this question of equity, and especially if my family is of reduced circumstances and I’m gonna wait and take the SAT as late as I possibly can, or ACT, I’m not sure that it serves the mindset of that changing demographic of young people who are going to college first-time freshmen.

0:26:09.8 MR: Much larger percentage come from diverse backgrounds, much more likely to be first in the family going to college, also more likely to come from constrained financial circumstances. So, when you think about some combination of all of those factors, asking people to go back to something that they’re probably not all that comfortable with to start with, I’m not sure… I guess another, this is a super less sophisticated way of saying it, once you open the barn door and all the horses ran out, it’s hard to bring them back in. Again, there are places for whom testing is gonna be super important, and the demand will be so great to go there that students will be absolutely happy to jump through that hoop, to throw their hat in the ring, and I think that’s a great thing. But I think in an environment where more and more institutions are looking for students, looking for ways and reasons to admit students rather than looking for reasons to exclude them, that thinking about staying test-optional might be a good choice.

0:27:06.6 MK: I tend to agree with you that I think the test-optional horse is out of the admissions barn, that was my favorite metaphor of today’s conversation. Given that that’s the case, what are the, I guess, in summary, what are the three top pieces of advice that you would give to colleges and universities regarding test-optional for the coming cycle and beyond?

0:27:29.2 MR: Well, I think… Let me just reiterate a couple of things that we’ve already hit on. I think wherever you land with policy, simpler is always better. So, within the construct of your community, your culture and the environment in which you’re operating as an enrollments team, the simpler that you can get your colleagues to buy in with you, the better off you’ll be in terms of your ability to share that information. I also think that there have been some super positive impacts. I’m always looking for that silver lining in COVID, one of the silver linings was a really positive impact on students from under-represented groups and institutions who had to pivot to test-optional saw an increase in diversity in their enrolling classes. I consider that a huge win for students, and for our country and for human potential.

0:28:18.9 MR: And then finally, I think family expectations have changed a bit. I think internal expectations at institutions are also in the process of shifting, and I think there’s an opportunity for leaders to build on that, to build on what’s the public sentiment, to bring that information home to the community and to work with faculty and all the interested parties to make sure that there are good acceptable proxies for test scores. So, that in a much more test-optional or alternative world, the internal community feels really good about the results and feels positive about the students that they’re serving and feels confident that they’ll be able to get them through college and launch successfully.

0:29:01.9 MK: That’s great advice, and particularly the last point you made, it’s a taller order, but it’s worth the effort. And I think it’ll pay off in terms of any measure of enrollment results that colleges and universities care about. So I’m really glad that we have the opportunity after these conversations, I always enjoy our conversations recorded or not, and I hope that we get invited back because there’s plenty other important issues in enrollment for us to talk about.

0:29:29.6 MR: So Michael, thank you so much for inviting me to have a chat with you, it is always fun. There are a lot of exciting topics, so many great things that colleges and universities are doing nationwide that we love to shine a light on in these conversations, and so thanks for having me and until next time, and I’ll find another good metaphor for you.

0:29:49.2 MK: Can’t wait.


0:29:56.3 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we examine the impact of the recent bull market on university endowments and share tips for advancement leaders on how to preserve and protect their financial good fortune. Until then, thank you for your time.

More Podcasts


Is Your Admissions Team Struggling with Channel Overload?

Experts explain how to build the right mix of data sources and engagement platforms to identify, learn about,…

NACAC CEO Shares Admissions Strategies to Improve College Access

NACAC CEO Dr. Angel Pérez joins EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer to discuss findings from a new NACAC/NASFAA report, “Toward…

Graduate Admissions Teams Are Close to the Breaking Point

Experts discuss findings from a new EAB/NAGAP survey of over 1,200 graduate admissions leaders that shows nearly half…