COLUMBIA, Mo. – The University of Missouri’s Faculty Council voted Thursday to extend its highly controversial “test-optional” admissions pilot program that many believe to be antithetical to academic excellence.
For the fall 2021 admissions class, Mizzou had joined other universities in switching to a test-optional admissions process for applying freshmen, because the ability to take ACT or SAT tests was stymied by COVID-19 restrictions. Rather than submitting standardized test scores, applicants instead were only required to fill in three short-answer questions and to submit their high school transcripts.
Initially, the alternative route to apply didn’t concern many, as it was supposed to be a temporary pandemic-year solution, according to the university. Now, however, many are concerned the extended no-test admissions policy could damage Mizzou’s reputation as an accomplished, selective public university.
The policy was passed by a vote of 19-5 with two abstention votes and allows prospective students to apply to the university without an ACT or SAT score through 2025.
If the move was initially made to avert issues of students being unable to take standardized tests during the pandemic, why extend it even as COVID-19 infection rates continue to decline?
Diversity, according to other universities.
The University of California announced last year it would stop using standardized tests in the admissions process across all nine of its campuses. According to EdSource.org, UC made that decision in response to “criticism that the tests are biased against low-income students, disabled students and Black and Latino students.”
However, many researchers and scholars believe standardized testing for admission into universities actually helps diversity within the school, and getting rid of the tests could hurt it.
First reported by CNN, a January 2020 report conducted by University of California professors concluded that standardized tests, which have since been done away with, actually protected diversity. The study was part of a “years-long review of admissions processes using data from many years of students.”
“The unexpected outcome of the statistical analyses in the report is that … because each applicant’s test scores are viewed within the applicant’s local context, they offer a means for protecting the diversity of the applicant pool,” UC Academic Senate chair Kum-Kum Bhavnani told the University of California Board of Regents at the time.
California professors aren’t alone in that belief, either. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, has reversed its test-optional policy implemented during the pandemic specifically because standardized testing helped the university increase its diversity among students.
“Our research suggests the strategic use of testing can help us continue to improve both the diversity of our class and its collective success at MIT,” Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill wrote in a March 28 blog post. “We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”
Even Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a known diversity advocate, has acknowledged that test-optional admissions doesn’t bolster diversity.
“Institutions are kidding themselves if they believe going test-optional equals diversifying a student body a lot more,” Pérez has said.
The University of Missouri has long been a more selective public university, which has led to higher academic achievement compared to other public universities such as state border rival Kansas University.
According to a Forbes ranking of universities, the University of Missouri outperforms Kansas University in both retention rate and six-year graduation rate. Some proponents believe this to be a direct result of Mizzou’s more selective admissions process, as KU admits 93% of applicants to MU’s 81%.
In extending its pandemic test-optional admissions policy, Mizzou risks throwing away its hard-won, historic academic advantage – in the pursuit of a largely disproven thesis that standardized tests impede diversity within universities.
Many believe ending standardized testing for admission into universities could ultimately harm the student as well. With no standardized measure of intellectual ability, the only remaining metric available to evaluate potential applicants is their high school GPA. As the quality of high school education varies greatly from school district to school district, high school GPAs may not reflect the actual value of the education the student received.
For example, a student who graduates with a 4.0 GPA from a Baltimore, Maryland school district – an infamously failing school system – looks the same on paper as a student who graduated with a 4.0 GPA from a mid-tier public high school, even though their level of education is likely vastly different.
Such a scenario can set students up for devastating failure, if they’re accepted into a rigorous university without the actual ability to keep up academically.
Thus, proponents say, standardized testing represents the only reliable way to reveal a student’s chance of academic success at a particular university.