New Beginnings… Better Endings? What Test-Optional Means for Education Equity

Student fills out a form. Gates Foundation
Allan Golston
Blog Post


ike many (or maybe most) of you, I entered the summer with a lot of hope about turning the corner on the pandemic and its inequitable effects on our nation. And while I am still hopeful, that hope is tempered with concern about what the fall and winter will hold, especially for students and their families. 

One measure that I am specifically watching is postsecondary enrollment, which has taken a significant hit over the past year and a half. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that Spring 2021 enrollment dropped 4 percent over Spring 2020, with significant losses at community colleges and among Black and Latino students. This continues a trend we saw last fall and comes at a time when the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is already reporting that the demand for workers with education after high school already exceeds supply. More importantly, these trends threaten to reverse hard-fought gains to make our education system more equitable.

So what is being done to maintain and expand access to our colleges and universities, even in the face of these headwinds? One change that is gaining traction is the move by colleges and universities to eliminate or make standardized admissions tests optional for prospective students to be considered for enrollment. To be clear, test-optional policies are not new; institutions were moving in this direction well before the pandemic because of evidence indicating that the tests can be biased and reinforce inequities in K-12 education. Additionally, research emerging on this topic suggests that other measures, such as high school grade point average, can be more predictive of students’ college success. In light of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the number of institutions (and even states) adopting these policies is on the rise.

While there are a number of studies, including one published earlier this year that covers less selective institutions, as well as new survey data from institutions indicating that test-optional policies can have a positive impact on access for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, there is still a lot that we don’t know about long-term impacts on student success or what might be needed in addition to test-optional policies for overall effectiveness. For example, there is debate over whether these policies can achieve their goals or if there are more effective ways to address access barriers. It is also important to keep in mind that these tests are used for more than just admissions – they can impact students’ scholarships, placement, access to honors programs, among other uses. This debate came up in a recent conversation with our co-chair Melinda French Gates, who asked the critical questions: “How are these policies working when it comes to advancing equity? Are there things we should be learning and sharing?”

I’m pleased to announce that the foundation will be making a set of investments to help answer those questions – with partners that have a clear focus on equitable outcomes. In the near term, the partners leading these investments will produce insights about the most recent admissions cycle, specifically, which institutions took action, and what was the impact on the students they enroll. Over the longer term, the partners will track changes over multiple admissions cycles and intermediate outcomes for students (e.g. their impact on student persistence and/or retention), as well as conduct case studies of select institutions and produce a guidebook that proposes effective, equitable approaches to test-optional and related admissions policies. We look forward to sharing more details about these investments in the coming weeks.

We go into this work recognizing that it will not answer every question about test-optional policies, and that a single policy – even if it is effective – cannot achieve our shared goal of eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success. At the same time, we need to do what we can to understand effective ways to promote successful college journeys for all students – and that includes better understanding how those journeys can begin.