UMass goes test optional for next three years

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 04, 2020

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Amherst will make standardized test scores optional in admissions applications from at least spring 2021 through spring 2023 in response to the pandemic.

In a shift from the university’s previous policy, first-year students will not be required to submit SAT or ACT scores for admissions considerations.

University officials decided to implement the policy due to a lack of accessible, safe sites to take the SAT or ACT tests, according to James Roche, vice provost for enrollment management.

“UMass Amherst draws applications from throughout the world and few, if any, states and countries currently offer testing sites that provide the access and safety that students, families and schools have come to expect,” Roche said in a statement. “This is especially true for students who already encounter barriers in pursuit of a college education, including under-represented minority, first-generation and low-income students. Given all these considerations, going test optional is clearly the right choice.”

Speaking to UMass potentially extending this policy, university spokesman Ed Blaguzewski said that the university will “use this three-year period for evaluation and then decide how best to proceed in the future.”

Roche noted that UMass research shows that high school grade point average (GPA) more accurately predicts student performance, persistence and success, compared to standardized test scores. But “the combination of the two components provides an even stronger predictor than either the GPA or the test score alone,” Roche said.

UMass joins colleges and universities around the country that have at least temporarily suspended standardized test scores due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier in the spring, Amherst College also announced that it would suspend its standardized testing requirements for first-year students during the 2020-21 admissions cycle, stating that the college realized “the safe administration of standardized testing was at that point an impossibility,” according to Matt McGann, dean of Admission and Financial Aid.

“No decisions have been made beyond this year, but the college will be continuing to discuss what the admission process should look like in 2021 and beyond,” McGann said.

But even before the pandemic, a growing number of colleges have been rethinking how standardized test scores should factor into the admissions process. Locally, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges had already gone permanently test-optional, and Hampshire College has been “test blind” since 2014, meaning that the college does not consider standardized test results for any applicants.

Around the country, other high profile schools such as the University of Chicago, Trinity College and Middlebury College have also made standardized test results optional for applicants. For many schools, this shift was prompted by growing concerns that standardized tests mainly benefit students from more privileged background and do not accurately reflect a student’s academic abilities.

The ACT reported that between 2012 and 2015, students from families with an income of less than $80,000 scored 4.1 points lower on the test than students from families with a higher annual income. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an organization that advocates for test-optional admissions, also reports that standardized tests place students of color at a disadvantage, which can decrease diversity at colleges.

Some institutions, such Amherst and UMass, say that they consider test results in a “holistic fashion” alongside other factors, such as high school GPA, rigor of courses or leadership experience, in order to mitigate this achievement gap.

The university developed its test optional assessment formula, which is based on high school GPA, after analyzing three years of data and over 100,000 applicant records, according to a UMass statement. For applicants who choose to submit test scores, the university will “compare the result of the formula with and without the test score included and give the applicant the highest value of the two.”

While UMass has only committed to the test optional approach for three years at this time, Roche also said that data gathered during this period may change the university’s approach in the longer term.

“As one of the country’s top-25 public research universities, we look forward to using the test-optional approach during this period to learn more about the relationship between high school grades and standardized test scores, and to develop even better models for predicting student success in college,” Roche said. “Our mission is to identify and recruit students who can grow and thrive at UMass Amherst, progressing to earn their degree as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.