The SAT OR ACT standardized test score used to make or break college applications for high school seniors. But the pandemic turned that all on its head as nearly 80 percent of four-year colleges and universities went test-optional. Many schools are now evaluating whether that policy should become permanent. Hari Sreenivasan reports from Atlanta for our series, “Rethinking College.”
Judy Woodruff:Standardized test scores in the U.S. used to all but make or break college applications for high school seniors.
But during the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of four-year colleges and universities went test-optional. The result? Some students got accepted to more selective schools. Now many colleges are considering eliminating admission tests permanently.
Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reports from Atlanta as part of our special series Rethinking College.
Hari Sreenivasan:Along with its reputation as one of the nation’s leading research universities, the campus vibe helped make Emory Porsche Smith’s number one choice.
Porsche Smith, College Student:I toured Emory my junior year and fell in love. I called my parents that night and told them that’s where I wanted to go.
Hari Sreenivasan:The freshman from North Carolina was a straight A student. But her test score was a dream-crusher.
Porsche Smith:I made an 18 on my ACT, which is half of the perfect score being a 36.
Hari Sreenivasan:Did you automatically compare it to what the average Emory student gets?
Porsche Smith:Absolutely. I went on Google. What does an 18 test score mean? They told me I should look at community college.
Porsche Smith:And didn’t even consider my grades as an A student.
Hari Sreenivasan:But when Emory and hundreds of other institutions announced students no longer had to submit the scores due to the pandemic, Porsche applied, hoping to be the first in her family to go to college.
Porsche Smith was not alone. According to the Common App, which is used by more than 900 schools, only 43 percent of the incoming class of freshmen submitted their test scores along with their college applications.
That’s down from 77 percent prior to the pandemic. Selective universities, or schools that admit less than half of applicants, have seen the greatest surge in applications, despite overall enrollment in post-secondary education dropping during the pandemic.
John Latting, Dean of Admissions, Emory University: We went from about 75 percent of colleges are requiring the SAT to almost not in a year.
Hari Sreenivasan:John Latting, Emory’s dean of admissions, said dropping the scores helped fuel the surge in applications, but also changed the composition of applicants.
John Latting:Last year, 31 percent of the students we admitted didn’t submit scores. But what was eye-opening to us was how many students from lower-income backgrounds or whose parents didn’t happen to go to a college at all or whose high schools are not feeders to world famous universities, how much they said, wow, that’s great. You mean I can apply to Emory or somewhere else?
That’s where our applicant pool really grew. And we didn’t expect that.
Hari Sreenivasan:Last year, Emory saw a 20 percent surge in applicants, the largest pool in the school’s history. This spring, one-third of admitted students are from historically underrepresented backgrounds, who, according to data from the Common App, were less likely to report test scores.
John Latting:This is voting with your feet. I think, out in communities it’s represented as an obstacle. You’re just going to kind of put a number on me, and that’s going to determine my future, I don’t think is serving every student as well as it needs to.
Jeffrey Selingo, Author, “Who Gets in and Why”: Students who came from wealthier zip codes and school districts tended to not only take the test more often, but they were the ones who submitted those test scores.
Hari Sreenivasan:Author Jeffrey Selingo is not surprised.
For his book called “Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” he spent a year sitting in on the admissions process at three top universities, including Emory. He could see how testing favored the wealthy.
Jeffrey Selingo:Underrepresented students who came from lower-income zip codes tended not to take the test or, if they took the test, did not submit test scores. It’s a really big divide.
Hari Sreenivasan:Tests were one seen as the key way to compare students from different high schools on a level playing field.
But Cassidy Puckett, an assistant professor of sociology at Emory, says that field isn’t level for all.
Cassidy Puckett, Emory University:White students were doing better on more heavily weighted easier items with common words like golf and canoe, but Black and Latinx students did better on items that were more academic and more difficult, although those were weighted less heavily, so, words like vehemence and sycophant, which I can barely say.
Hari Sreenivasan:It’s part of why, even before the pandemic, some schools, including the University of Chicago and Brandeis University, had moved away from using the tests as part of the admissions process.
Mark Butt, Director Of Admissions, Emory University:Teachers were really impressed with her in school. They certainly called her a powerhouse in the classroom.
Hari Sreenivasan:We were flies on the wall for conversations like the ones admissions counselors have at Emory. Each applicant gets a review by a pair of officers.
And those applications that are too close to call get discussed in larger committees.
Mark Butt:I rated the letters of recommendation at the very top, because, in the school context, big public school, this student was certainly standing out for me on the read.
Hari Sreenivasan:Mark Butt says Emory’s holistic admissions process took on an urgency during the pandemic.
What are the things that kind of leap off the page to you?
We spend a lot of time looking at the context of the student. And so it’s like, what were your opportunities in your high school? What courses are offered at your high school?
But accounting for those differences is hard. Even the essays, activities, recommendations can be gamed, says author Jeffrey Selingo.
Jeffrey Selingo:Many wealthier parents hire essay coaches to help their kids write the essay, to help them edit it. Many high schools provide coaching on the essays.
But they do the same thing with the activities. The recommendations tend to be better from counselors and teachers at suburban well-resourced high schools and private high schools.
Hari Sreenivasan:Then there’s the money factor and applicants’ need vs. ability to pay.
Jeffrey Selingo:Most colleges need money. And they need the money from full-pay students, for example. So, many colleges look at the need of students in admissions or have other ways of assessing need when they are assessing applications.
Hari Sreenivasan:Emory, like many other universities, will be studying how their students who enrolled without test scores have fared. And they have extended the test-optional policy for another year.
John Latting:For the rest of this year, we’re going to study how our first-year students are doing. And, of course, we will start with easy-to-measure things, like retention, what’s going on with transcripts, grades, course selection. Is Emory serving as a catalyst to — for them to achieve their goals?
Hari Sreenivasan:Puckett, a first-generation college graduate herself, says the impact on campus goes beyond the students entering without test scores.
Cassidy Puckett:In a field like sociology, where we ask them to think critically about society, how the world works, and apply that to their everyday experience, to have different voices at the table makes for a much richer conversation.
Hari Sreenivasan:For Porsche Smith, her gamble paid off when she found out she was accepted last spring.
Porsche Smith:I receive congratulations and fell out — fell out my chair at the dinner table. And the next day, I received the full ride.
Hari Sreenivasan:A full ride?
You completed the coursework in high school. You did extracurricular activities. You stood out. You did things that were new to you. You may have done sports. So why just be seen for a test score?
Hari Sreenivasan:She’s majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology. It’s a chance for her to fulfill her dream of helping her autistic sister.
Porsche Smith:I grew up going to her appointments and watching her, how she communicated and interacted. I remember asking the doctor questions, like, hey, what does this medicine do for her having autism?
And autism is one of those things we haven’t really tapped fully into and we’re still researching.
Hari Sreenivasan:Several states are now considering laws to address the role that standardized admissions tests play at their public colleges