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McBee Students Investigate Perceptions of Test-Optional Policies

Case and Monday

As doctoral candidates at the McBee Institute, Collin Case and Alex Monday co-authored a multiple case study investigation into the perceptions of test-optional policies among admissions officers at two less-selective public institutions in the same state.

“Balancing Access and Success: Admissions Officers’ Sensemaking of Test-Optional Policies at Less-Selective Public Institutions” appears in The Journal of Higher Education.

Case and Monday interviewed admissions administrators and staff members at a regional PWI university (with an undergraduate focus) and a national university in an urban setting. They explain, “Admissions staff are positioned on the front lines of test-optional policy implementation, and their understanding of this policy can inform other stakeholders of the potential benefits and unintended consequences as institutions exit the emergency adoption period.”

In fall 2023, 83% of four-year institutions had test-optional admissions policies. Prior to the COVID pandemic, both of the schools in the study had relied on an academic readiness measure formula that combined admissions test scores with GPAs. The staff needed to make sense of the policy shift, apply the new policy, and cope with the implications.

Through this process, they made observations and formed opinions. Case and Monday found complex and evolving attitudes towards the utility of admissions tests. 

Most participants expressed skepticism about the tests’ accuracy as predictors of college success and felt that tests presented barriers to college access. Participants at both institutions reported that the test-optional policy allowed them to admit students they would have previously denied. The policy made sense to them as a means to find ways to accept more students, particularly those from rural and other underrepresented communities. 

Beyond generally positive impressions of increases in numbers of applications and admissions, the participants expressed a need to better understand the full impact of admissions changes. An equal number preferred staying test-optional or expressed an interest in more time to gather data before determining. They were concerned that new enrollment patterns throughout the system harmed less well-positioned schools as prospective students “applied up the hierarchy.”

The admissions administrator and staff also perceived that application and enrollment changes caused resource strains in processing the additional applications, making financial aid decisions, redistributing resources, and providing support programs.

The researchers agree, “We would caution systems from [making test-optional decisions] without high-quality date… or without making the adjustments necessary to ensure balance in the system and account for student access and success.”

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