Important Findings on Test-Optional Admissions

by Lily Knezevich, Senior Vice President for Learning and Assessment, and Stephen W. Luebke, Principle Test Specialist (retired), LSAC

1. Making standardized tests optional in admissions does not increase diversity in enrollment.

The most comprehensive study on the effects of test-optional admission policies to date (Belasco et al., 2015) shows that institutions that adopted this policy did not thereby improve the percentage of minority students or Pell Grant recipients enrolled. Using data from 180 selective liberal arts colleges (33 of which had adopted test-optional policies during the period studied) in the United States, covering a period of nearly two decades, the authors found that “test-optional admissions policies, as a whole, have done little to meet their manifest goals of expanding educational opportunity for low-income and minority students.” Similarly, a recent analysis of test-optional policies found no difference in the racial diversity of entering classes due to dropping the requirement of an admission test (Sweitzer et al., 2017).

More troubling, however, are the unintended consequences of adopting a test-optional policy. The Belasco study notes: “[I]n fact, test-optional admission policies may perpetuate stratification within the postsecondary sector, in particular, by assigning greater importance to credentials that are more accessible to advantaged populations.” In the absence of standardized test scores, test-optional colleges necessarily rely on “school-specific measures, such as strength of curriculum or involvement outside the classroom, to draw comparisons between prospective students” (Belasco et al., 2015). These are exactly the types of things that are more readily available to the privileged and beyond the reach of disadvantaged students. Other researchers likewise found that admission offices compensate for the lack of a test score by turning to undergraduate or high school reputation, courses taken (including AP and honors courses), extracurricular participation, or personal statements — factors that often work to disadvantage minority candidates (Jones, 2013).

2. Test-optional policies make schools appear more competitive by increasing the applicant pool, thereby discouraging applications from disadvantaged students.

The Belasco study uncovered several other consequences of test-optional admission policies that work to the benefit of schools but against the interests of disadvantaged students. Colleges adopting test-optional policies saw a significant increase in the number of applicants and, at the same time, a rise in the average standardized test scores of applicants. This finding is hardly surprising, since students with low scores have every reason to opt out of submitting them whenever they can. As the study summarizes, “findings from our analyses indicate that test-optional policies enhance the appearance of selectivity, rather than the diversity, of adopting institutions.” This appearance of increased selectivity can be another impediment to disadvantaged students less familiar with the admission process.

3. Modifying an admission policy to allow applicants to forego standardized admissions does not make the process fairer for first-generation applicants or those from economically disadvantaged communities.

While it might seem that not needing to prepare for and take an admission test would make the admission process easier and less complicated, it does not. Without a test score, admission officers must rely on other information about a candidate, applying standards that are not as transparent. This fact can increase the uncertainty and anxiety of candidates. They may start asking themselves: “Should I take the test or not?” “Should I submit this score or not?” “Will not submitting a score handicap me?” “What criteria will they use to evaluate me?” As Zwick (2017b) has argued, uncertainty favors those applicants whose parents and other relatives are familiar with the admission process and disfavors those who do not have family members who have received higher education. “Sociological research suggests that the fuzzier the admissions criteria, the greater the disadvantage suffered by low-income students and others who are less familiar with university culture” (Zwick, 2017c). Moreover, the less clear the criteria, the less fair the process appears to the candidate, making it seem arbitrary and capricious.


Belasco, A. S., Rosinger, K. O., & Hearn, J. C. (2015). The test optional movement at America’s selective liberal arts colleges: A boon for equity or something else? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 37(2), 206-223. doi:10.3102/0162373714537350

Jones, S. (2013). Ensure that you stand out from the crowd. Comparative Education Review, 57(3), 397-423.

Rahman, N., & Trierweiler, T. (2017). Analysis of differential prediction of law school performance by race/ethnicity based on 2011-2014 entering law school classes (LSAC Technical Report, TR 17-01). Newtown, PA: Law School Admission Council.…

Sweitzer, K., Blalock, A. E., & Sharma, D. B. (2017). The effects of going test-optional on diversity and admissions: a propensity score matching analysis. In J. Buckley, L. Letukas, & B. Wildavsky, (Eds.), Measuring Success. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wainer, H. (2011). Uneducated Guesses. Princeton University Press.

Zwick, R. (2017a). How do percent plans and other test-optional admissions programs affect the academic performance and diversity of the entering class? In J. Buckley, L. Letukas, & B. Wildavsky (Eds.), Measuring Success. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Zwick, R. (2017b). Who Gets In? Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions. Harvard University Press.

Zwick, R. (2017c, December 5). Why applying to college is so confusing. The New York Times.