Test Optional Schools: Boon or Bane for Higher Learning?
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Isolated crumpled exam form with a broke pencil.

Test-optional schools have effectively taken down one of the biggest hurdles to getting a college education by allowing students to apply for admission even without standardized test scores. High school students have one less thing to worry about knowing that there are colleges and universities that will accept them even without taking the SAT or ACT exams.

Also referred to as open enrollment, this admissions policy started out when extensive studies began to show that standardized aptitude test scores do not determine student success in college. Instead of SAT or ACT scores, experts point out that high school performance is a more reliable indicator of how an individual student will perform in a college setting.

This is not to say that aptitude tests are useless. In fact, test scores can pull up a student’s application ranking even in test-optional institutions. Rather, the issue about standardized tests may well lie on their fairness across all income levels and racial groups. Research has shown that test scores in SAT or ACT are directly related to the household income bracket where the student’s family belongs. In other words, students whose parents earn more tend to perform better in standardized tests.

As a result, relying on test scores have run against the goal of many colleges and universities to improve the student diversity in their campuses. According to FairTest.org, an organization promoting quality and equal opportunity education, there were over 30 colleges last year that joined hundreds of others in adopting a test-optional admissions policy. As of now, over 800 schools are on the list.

Do Test Scores Really Matter?

An interesting story happened in DePaul University in Chicago after it adopted a test-optional policy back in 2012. The university’s plan was to attract more applications from deserving students whose test results do not necessarily show their true learning potential. Most of the applicants came from the city public schools.

After a few years, the statistics from the university’s admissions office reveal that the public high school graduates who had low test scores performed just as well in college as those who had higher SATs and ACTs.

What does it all mean? Well, for the most part, one’s performance in college is not determined by standardized test scores. One thing remains clear, open-enrollment schools tend to view applicants beyond their standardized test scores. For the student, it means gaining admissions in a top university based on personality and true potential and not being judged based on test scores.

Students who think about enrolling in a test-optional college can start by checking out over 800 schools listed on FairTest.org. Keep in mind that while all the schools on the list have open enrollment policies, many of them will evaluate applicants based on high school GPA and other criteria. Some universities have flexible admissions policies that require students to submit requirements like Advanced Placement scores or International Baccalaureate certificates instead of SAT or ACT results.

To Send or Not to Send Your Scores?

By dropping exam scores as requirement for admissions, test-optional colleges make it easier for students to apply. That can only mean a little less stress among prospective students. But even if you are sending your application to a test-optional college or university, it pays to know if you still need your test scores. Here’s how to determine if you need to send in your scores or not.

  1. Send to increase chances of acceptance. Sure, the college where you sent your application doesn’t need your SATs and ACTs, but if you want to get a higher ranking in your application and improve your chances of getting in, you may want to send in your scores.
  1. Send if your high school performance is not that good. It’s not exactly a secret that open-enrollment schools tend to closely examine students who did not submit their scores. Colleges want to see that their students have the potential to succeed. This goes in line with their competition issues with other institutions and marketing goals. Colleges are particularly interested in an individual’s school performance and leadership skills. If you feel you lack the chips to impress the college admission officer, better send in your scores.
  1. Send if you want to avail scholarships or merit aid. Many test-optional schools offer merit aid and other forms of scholarships. To decide who qualifies for these benefits, college admissions will definitely use test scores for evaluation. Therefore, if the financial or scholarship aid is important to you, send in your impressive scores.
  1. Don’t send if your scores are not that good. Before you send in your application, try to scrutinize the university’s published test scores. In a selective institution, if your scores are below the top 30 percent of all accepted students, you are better off holding your scores than sending them in. In a more inclusive university, your scores should not fall below the upper 50 percent of all accepted students.

What’s In It for Schools?

Colleges and universities that adopt an open-enrollment policy mainly want to improve student diversity in their campuses. By being test-optional, schools are inviting more applicants from low-income and minority families. The policy seems to be working.

For instance, Lawrence University reported a 25 percent increase in underrepresented students in the recent school year. It’s a big jump from 10 percent in 2006 when the university started out their test-optional policy. The results are indeed encouraging that Wisconsin College has rolled out partnership agreements with various nonprofits that support low-income and minority students.

But of course, the goal of the policy goes beyond kindness and expanding college opportunities for low-income students. Surveys have shown that the schools, not just potential students, benefit from being test-optional. As more students are emboldened to apply for higher education, admissions rejection rates rise which, in turn, can make colleges appear to be more selective.

Moreover, since freshmen applicants with low test scores are less likely to submit their results for admission, the published test score averages of individual schools will also be higher. A school’s published test score is one of the most important pieces of information that prospective students check out when deciding which school to apply in. The higher the rate, the more students can be expected to apply.

What’s In It for Students?

  1. The biggest advantage for students is having more options regarding their college education. As SATs and ACTs become less of a requirement in college applications, students can choose from hundreds of universities and from countless higher learning programs.
  1. A student’s high school graduation rates and GPA are better indicators of academic performance compared to standardized test scores. So, if you think that your SAT or ACT results do not accurately reflect your school performance, you now have a good chance of finding a university that will accept you without looking at your test scores.
  1. As more schools jump in on the test-optional bandwagon, studies have shown that an increasing number of applicants are women, minority students, and persons with learning disabilities. The message is clear. Open enrollment policies have opened higher learning to more students from all walks of life.


While most universities say that the objective of adopting a test-optional policy is to improve student diversity in their campuses, a handful of studies claim that there’s no clear-cut proof that students belonging to low-income or minority families benefit from such policy. In short, the school’s motives remain questionable at best.

But for the prospective college applicant, not worrying about SAT or ACT scores is definitely a big advantage. As more colleges drop test score requirements, students have more choices in terms of schools and programs. Best of all, students no longer have to throw out their potential just because they got low test scores.