In 2020 many universities decided to become: “test optional” for entrance, see here. This was an interesting development. My worry is that test optional isn’t always the benevolent response from universities that it might seem to some.
I was reading about this in a chapter by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades. I would want to know more detail on a lot of their arguments in the chapter. Some of it seemed a bit too cycnical about educational organizations and educational policy to my mind. Plus I’m not sure I buy the use of terms. E.g., the authors use “market value” as a replacement for performance which seems a little unclear to me. (For more, though less well developed, arguments in a similar vein see here). That said, the authors have clearly given the topics a lot of thought. They deserve to be listened to. The arguments on test optional are especially interesting.
Places At University Remain Somewhat Limited
Letting in students who do not supply tests does not mean that places at university have increased. Of course, one might try to do this. Small expansions of numbers can often be done without too much stress on the system. The obvious question becomes: if this is a good idea why isn’t this done without making tests optional? Presumably the argument against expansion is some combination of funding — whenever the students aren’t paying full cost — and worries about diluting student quality.
If funders — mostly governments — are willing to add more cash this seems nice. What university would object? Clearly a university wouldn’t want to expand capacity through long-term committments if the increased funding is short-term. Still whatever you can do in the short-term in response to generous funders that is great.
Diluting quality is a bit more tricky. The argument to go test optional — as opposed to optional on anything else — might be that tests are relatively more onerous in a time of pandemic. This might be true but it isn’t self-evident. Everything seems more onerous in a time of pandemic. In addition, if grades from prior courses are less diagnostic (because of the challenges teaching in a pandemic) then tests might be one of the few non-random ways to split students. That said, the pandemic is a strange time. As such, I can see how it makes sense to change temporarily. Such an argument is especially powerful given many test were cancelled. Some students couldn’t sit a test even if they wanted to.
Test Optional Long-Term. Who Gains?
Yet, should we make tests optional long-term? I have worries. My thinking here is mostly about post-grad but may apply more broadly. Tests are one of the few ways that outsiders can show their skills. Insiders, those who are already in the elite North American system, can get the sort of letters they need from the right academics. What is more they have taken the right preparatory courses which show on their transcripts. Furthermore, the insiders have scores in systems that look recognizable. Insiders already have many advantages. (Indeed, after I wrote this my alma mater sent a note saying they were making tests optional and instead looking more for good grades from prestigious institutions. Basically, the clear plan is now — ‘that to those that have already had advantages then more will be given’).
I worry that getting rid of tests can favor insiders at the expense of outsiders — especially foreign students. I could well be wrong; this seems an empirical question and I haven’t done any numbers. Yet, test optional with a fixed number of places has to hurt some if it benefits some others. If outsiders suffer to benefit insiders who already have many advantages I do not think this is self-evidently a good thing.
Test Optional Boosts Rejection Numbers?
Slaughter and Rhoades (2016) have a more cyncical argument against test optonal. More students will apply because it is test optional which makes the university seem more sought after.
Less-qualified students are encouraged to apply, but only high-scoring students are likely to submit their test scores to these instutions, raising the overall selectivity proifle for the institutions.Slaughter and Rhoades (2016) page 512
Universities look better as they can turn more people down and the average score supplied is higher. (Why supply a low score?). Still the universities still admit the same students that they were planning too all along. This is clearly not helpful for anyone. I am not sure how common this thinking is but I hope that universities do not use test optional simply to boost their numbers of rejections.
Read: Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades (2016) State and Markets In Higher Education: Trends In Academic Capitalism, Chapter 17 in American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges, Fourth Edition, edited by Michael Bastedo, Philip Altbach, and Patricia Gumport