Universities suspended mandatory test scores for admissions. Now they’re requiring them again.

The University of Texas at Austin was one of several schools to make the switch. But what’s behind the change?

By Sean SaldanaMarch 13, 2024 11:28 am,

On Monday, the University of Texas at Austin announced that, once again, all applicants looking to attend the school will need to submit standardized test scores beginning in fall of 2025.

Mandatory SAT or ACT scores were suspended for many colleges and universities across the country back in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic made administering tests more difficult. But as the peak pandemic has wound down, many schools have started to bring those tests back. 

Dartmouth, Georgetown, MIT, Yale and now Texas have all announced plans to bring back mandatory testing. 

Jeff Selingo is the author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” and he’s been reporting on higher education for more than two decades. He joined Texas Standard to talk about college admissions changing as schools move back to testing. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Colleges across the country, as I was saying, drop those mandatory tests for admissions during the height of the pandemic. Now we’re seeing this new trend. Can you say a little bit about why universities are starting to embrace standardized tests all over again? 

Jeff Selingo: Well, I think there’s two reasons they’re doing it.

One is they’ve been inundated with applications. The number of applications have gone up by more than 30% at the more selective colleges over the last four years because, basically, what a lot of students were saying is “if a test score is not required, I might as well throw an application over the transom to those places.”

And so they’ve been inundated with these applications. It’s hard to read them all. And so one of the things that requiring a test does – puts a governor back on them. Because most of the number of applications go down when you put the test scores back.

The other thing, and this is what the University of Texas did, is they’ve been studying students who have come in with test scores and without test scores to see how they’ve been performing in classes. And at the University of Texas, for example, they found that students have a lower GPA who came in without test scores. They also saw, for example, that students at the lower end of the overall GPA scale were more likely not to have test scores, other things being equal.

And so, you know, really what they want to make sure is that whoever they’re admitting is actually going to perform well in college. And at the University of Texas and at some of these other schools, they say they’re not able to perform without test scores. And so that’s why they are now requiring these at some of these schools.

You know, I suppose you just underscored that word “some.” “At some of these schools.” We’ve been hearing a lot about some colleges and universities struggling since the pandemic and continuing to struggle as people have started to question the economics of higher education more broadly.

But looking at the press release put out by UT-Austin, I gather last year the university had a record 73,000 applicants, more than 40% of those applying asking to have their standardized test scores considered in a holistic review. What’s going on with some of these schools, is it just the more selective ones that seem to be leaning in here as they see more applications? 

Not all. So we have some selective schools, including some others in the Ivy. Columbia has announced a permanent test optional policy. Penn announced they’re going to stay test optional for another year when I talked to some of their admissions deans.

Their data is a little bit different now. They’re not being as transparent as the University of Texas. They claim that the performance of students without test scores is essentially the same as students with test scores so far.

Now, what they want to know is they want to get more data. They want to have a couple more years of data before they decide to do this. You know, maybe Texas is just so much bigger, right? So it’s easier to tease out data, compared to some of these other schools I think they want to see. Are there differences by major? Are there differences in certain classes between those with test scores and without test scores?

But as you point out, there’s also a number of less selective schools that need applicants. And as I said earlier, as soon as you require test scores, the number of applications typically goes down. And many of these other schools want as many applicants as they can get, because that helps them meet their enrollment goals. And if they put a test score back as a requirement, they’re likely going to have a downturn in terms of numbers of applications.

» GET MORE NEWS FROM AROUND THE STATE: Sign up for Texas Standard’s weekly newsletters

But this goes back to an argument that’s been around as long as standardized tests have. It has to do with these gatekeepers sort of locking out people with less opportunity. For instance, there’s a correlation between income and SAT/ACT performance. And I think a lot of folks saw this as an opening, perhaps, that some of these elite universities would become more diverse. 

Yeah. Not only is it highly correlated with income, but we also know that the prediction of the test scores are really around first year GPA. It’s not necessarily around all four years in college. The high school GPA is a much better predictor of student success in college.

I think there’s also an issue here where some students are just great test takers. And so you might have students who come in or applicants who come in with great test scores but mediocre high school grades. And you have to wonder, are they really applying themselves?

And then the opposite is also true, where you have students who come with great high school GPAs. Maybe they’re in under-resourced high schools, and so they just can’t do the test prep that wealthier students, for example, can do. So this is an argument and a debate that is fraught with a lot of other issues kind of ingrained in it.

And I will tell you, there are pro-testing people and anti-testing people. And I think we are going to end up largely in the middle over the next couple of years. I think most schools will probably stay test optional, because it gives them maximum flexibility in order to shape their class.

In other words, when they want to use the test score, they will. And when a student wants them to do, they will. And then if they are an applicant they really want and they don’t have a test score, they’ll say, “sure, come on in, because we really want you in.” So it gives them maximum flexibility at the end of the day.

So what then should be the standard recommendation made by counselors and teachers to students thinking about college? Take it no matter what just in case?

Yeah. And this is the thing I hate about the test optional – it really is that it benefits the college, I think, more than the student because what ends up happening is most students will apply to multiple schools. Different schools use test scores in different ways. And so you have no idea what you should do.

So I think the best advice, which I’ve heard from a lot of admissions deans and a lot of counselors, is take the test just so you have a score, then you at least know, “well, where do I stand?” And then you might use the score at some schools with some applications, and not at other schools with other applications. It becomes much more of a strategy than about whether you submit or not based on where you think you fall within the applicant pool.

But that becomes a lot of detective work on the part of students and their families. And I think it puts a lot of stress and ambiguity and anxiety into the process for families. Meanwhile, colleges get to make all the rules, and they play this game in much more of a position of strength compared to families.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.