Calling on Colleges and Universities to Permanently Adopt Test Optional Admissions Policies

The significant barriers to access imposed by the SAT, ACT and other standardized tests, and the resulting inequities, are not limited to the challenges of test administration during a pandemic.

 The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and its members are deeply committed to helping students navigate the college process and find colleges where they can grow, succeed, learn, and thrive.

IECA believes in the transformative power of education, and we are devoted to our mission of ensuring that all students have access to education, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, learning differences or zip code. We demonstrate this commitment through (1) our work with thousands of students and families from all 50 states and around the world (2) our partnerships with colleges, schools and therapeutic programs and (3) the creation of equitable and inclusive resources.

IECA seeks to prevent barriers to that access.

In an effort to advance equity, IECA believes that all students should be able to choose how to present themselves in their college applications and whether or not to submit their standardized test scores.

Every year, many students are disadvantaged in the college admissions process because of the inequities ingrained in the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests. Large numbers of low income students lack access to private tutors, enhanced educational opportunities, study guides, computer technology, reliable internet access and other resources typically available to wealthier students. Low income students face additional barriers associated with the financial burden of sending score reports.

These are not the only students who face barriers imposed by standardized testing. Countless students with learning differences struggle disproportionately with standardized testing. These students are often unlikely to perform as well as their neurotypical peers on standardized tests and, as a result, are frequently at a disadvantage in college admissions.

As a result of these significant barriers, many students find that their standardized test scores do not accurately reflect their skills and abilities. These students should have the opportunity to decide if their scores are considered in the college admissions evaluation process.

FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and many others, have provided extensive data to support the unfairness inherent in these tests. This data shows that standardized test scores are neither a strong predictor of academic achievement in college nor of graduation rates, and also establishes a correlation between test scores and income. Many colleges and universities, well aware of these factors, became test optional (or test blind). These colleges and universities reconsidered their traditional admissions requirements and found creative solutions that allowed them to continue to make thoughtful admissions decisions without standardized test scores. Studies have also shown that test-optional colleges and universities admit higher numbers of low income students, underrepresented minorities, women, and first generation students.

Colleges and universities must act now to remove the barriers to equitable access to higher education that are presented by standardized testing.

COVID-19 and the resulting complications with the administration of standardized testing has magnified these inequities. The College Board (SAT) and ACT have canceled, and continue to cancel or postpone, numerous test administrations across the world. The resulting uncertainty has also increased student stress and anxiety. The at-home AP exam was especially problematic for students without access to quiet spaces, reliable technology and internet access. Many thousands of students were unable to complete the exams, and it is impossible to quantify the numbers of students who did not even attempt the exam, because of these barriers. The at-home AP exams also presented challenges for students with learning differences who require accommodations.

According to FairTest, more than half of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities (and this number continues to grow) have responded to these challenges by becoming test optional for the high school Class of 2021. Many also have chosen to be test optional for up to a three-year pilot period, and many have made the decision to become permanently test optional. Others have adopted test blind admissions policies.

In announcing the decision to become test optional, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce summarizes the rationale for eliminating the SAT/ACT requirement: “Careful analysis and research showed that standardized testing did not add meaningfully to the prediction of student success that our holistic admission process already provides.” Similarly, as stated by Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis of the University of California system’s Governing Board, “These tests are extremely flawed and very unfair. Enough is enough.”

Enough is enough.

IECA is calling on colleges and universities to embrace this opportunity to become more equitable and reduce barriers by becoming test optional on a permanent basis for admissions consideration and in the awarding of merit aid, thereby increasing fair and equal access to higher education for all students. IECA is further calling on colleges and universities to allow self-reporting of test scores in order to reduce the financial burden on students.  

The time is now to remove barriers, not just for the high school Class of 2021, but for all future college applicants.

2020 Rankings Released: What Colleges are Looking for in Applicants

by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO, IECA

For more than 20 years, the Independent Educational Consultants Association has surveyed its member college admission experts to determine what colleges want to see in their applicants, creating a ranking to assist students and their parents in understanding how college applicants are reviewed after submission. Of course, all colleges are different and IECA members can be particularly helpful in understanding those variances.

Among the key 2020 findings:

• While grades are important (#2 in rankings), colleges want to see students challenging themselves, willing to risk perfect GPAs by taking courses that will demonstrate a willingness to take chances, including AP and IB coursework (#1).

• Despite all the talk about “test optional,” scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT remain critical (#3)

• Extra-curriculars rose to their highest level ever in the IECA rankings (#4), but colleges look for a long-term, passionate, authentic involvement in one or two activities whether in or out of school. No one is impressed by a long list of tangential clubs. In fact, jumping two spots (to #6) this year: demonstration of leadership within those chosen few activities.

• Essays remain important and are even more important at smaller colleges. But students misunderstand their role. Yes, clear and cogent writing matters, but a great essay is one that tells a story, giving insight into a student’s unique personality. There’s a great saying—no one else should be able to write the essay you submit for admission.

• Coming together are four items that speak to the question: what can YOU do for US? Colleges wonder how the student will contribute to campus life: through unique characteristics or demographics (#7), through special talents (#9), through interest in research (#10), and through demonstrations of a student’s character and values (#11).

• How does a student demonstrate all those? Through the essay, the activities list, and through recommendations, which turned up as #8 on the 2020 rankings.

• Finally, an area students often don’t understand is demonstration of interest and enthusiasm in attending (#12). Are you following the college on Facebook? Did you visit the campus? Seek an interview? Colleges don’t like to extend an offer of admission to a student who will go elsewhere, so when you decide on your first choice, let them know!

The complete survey results can be found here.

Impact of DOJ Agreement on ED & Admission “Poaching”

by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO, IECA

By now, most independent educational consultants (IECs) who work with college bound students have heard that NACAC has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that eliminates several provisions of the NACAC SPGP. The DOJ argued that some of these rules—those requiring colleges to restrict recruitment efforts—constituted collusion or restrained trade.

Many IECA members have asked for guidance on what they might expect or “what to tell client families” so they are not blind-sided as the rules that colleges have followed for years become relaxed.I think there are two specific bits of information IECs and families should know:

1. Colleges for years have agreed to a universal response date, the date by which students would commit to a college for the fall. Colleges had agreed to rules that prohibited them from trying to “poach” a student who had made a commitment elsewhere. Meaning, colleges would not pursue a student who committed to attend elsewhere, including a prohibition of incentives to change their mind (like a last-minute bump in financial aid).

This rule will end. So, what will happen? We really don’t know. Most organizations, like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and IECA believe most colleges will, at least initially, voluntarily keep to this rule. Yet we know that any college that fails to achieve enrollment numbers may feel compelled to recruit past a student’s personal decision or beyond the May 1 deadline. Like the proverbial leak in the dam, what we don’t know is if a few colleges pursuing students will result in an all-out effort to recruit already committed students.

We also don’t know yet if colleges will take actions proactively to protect students that commit. For example, I predict that deposits may well increase from the hundreds to a thousand dollars or more, all to make it less likely that students will casually accept offers late in the year with a new pursuer, post-commitment. Likewise, housing deposits and fees could increase. Thus, while some colleges may pursue students who have committed elsewhere, other colleges may work to make a student think hard before making an expensive decision to change their commitment.

Other questions will be left to IECs to consider. If colleges can seek to recruit students who have already deposited, will our advice that students may not double deposit or admonitions that once you accept you must withdraw applications elsewhere, still be valid? Will this lead to a “second season” of admission where students are free to negotiate for their best deal?

2. The second area that the Justice Department secured a change was in recruitment of students applying under a binding “Early Decision.” The rule had been that colleges could not use special incentives to entice students to apply early—and commit—since this was binding. For example, colleges were precluded from using special Early Decision scholarships, or early decision priority for dorms or classes.

These rules, too, are now gone. Colleges may begin to offer incentives to apply under a binding ED, and there are signs that colleges are exploring this. Again, we hope that such incentives don’t become widespread, but I suspect it will happen. We know that Early Decision is a serious commitment, and as such, a decision should be done upon thoughtful and careful planning with an IEC when there is a clear first choice, not merely because an incentive is put on the table.

Once again, IECs will have to ponder the advice they give to students. Such incentives could become one more variable to consider in the process.

Colleagues, I hope this information helps as you think about what could occur. It will be important to follow how the application year develops as your work with students will almost certainly be impacted. What we don’t know is how much or how fast the traditional rules will be become victims to the DOJ rulings. Those attending IECA’s Spring Conference in Connecticut will see agenda items on this issue, including an address on this topic by Jayne Fonash, NACAC president and IEC.

Making Character Count in Admission

by Mark H. Sklarow, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Educational Consultants Association

Let’s assume you were an admission director for a day. One spot remains for the class of 2019 with two folders in front of you. Candidate A is a brilliant young woman, with a 4.0 GPA which she achieved without breaking a sweat. In fact, she cruised through high school, never once experiencing a downturn personally or academically. Candidate B achieved a GPA a bit lower, let’s say a 3.6. But she did it faced with challenges: personal, familial, and academic. She wasn’t scared off by tough classes and succeeded with grit, determination, and a healthy dose of persistence.

Facing Deferment 

By Mark Cruver, MEd, IECA (GA)

Deferment can be equally as troublesome for independent educational consultants (IECs) as it is for students. After spending countless hours and weeks advising, coaching, encouraging, and motivating students to apply to first-choice colleges and universities, we all wait with anticipation for the news. When the moment arrives for some, the rattled voice on the other end of the phone communicates all we need to know. And then, much like our students, we wonder what went wrong.

Possibilities Abound: The Power of Collaboration

By Diana Cohen, Applerouth Tutoring Services

When the team at Applerouth Tutoring Services first read in Insights that IECA was providing pro bono college counseling to students through The Possibility Project, we were immediately inspired to also help support teens in the New York City after-school program. (See “Possibilities Abound,” Insights, April/May 2015). We approached volunteers Marilyn Emerson, a former IECA president, and Ann Rossbach, the current IECA president, and offered to supplement IECA’s college mentoring with a pro bono SAT class. Today, headed into our third year of collaboration, we’re more excited than ever about the possibilities that abound when organizations work together for student success. We hope the story of our collaboration will provide guidance and inspiration for others in their efforts.