New test-optional applications prevent students from being ‘defined by one data point’

A new test-optional pilot program could change how students are admitted to Augustana by allowing them to forgo submitting an ACT or SAT test score.

Beginning this year, Augustana admissions has added a test-optional application. Students still have to fill out the basic Augustana application and submit their high school transcripts, but rather than also submitting their standardized test scores, students can answer two essay questions, according to Nancy Davidson, vice president for enrollment.

Some incoming freshmen, such as NCAA student athletes, international students, homeschooled students, early admission nursing applicants and candidates for the Distinguished Scholars and YT Johnson Science scholarships, must still submit their test scores, according to the university website.

All students who choose the test-optional route must give a personal statement that allows the admissions team some insight into who the students are and answer one of six additional questions that focus on leadership, involvement, volunteering, self-awareness and grit.

The questions are reviewed by the student’s primary admissions counselor, a secondary admissions counselor and the admissions committee, which is comprised of Augustana administrators and faculty members, according to Madeleine Ellis, associate director of admission.

“There’s lots of different eyes on the application so that we can make sure we’re consistent and providing equitable opportunity,” Ellis said.

The admissions staff looks at the student’s potential for success, their ability to overcome challenges, their level of engagement and the quality of the writing, according to Davidson.

The decision to try out a test-optional application process comes after years of discussion as thousands of other colleges have transitioned to test-optional applications. Research has shown that standardized tests are not always the best predictor of student success.

Sharon Andrews, associate professor of education and accountability coordinator, said that any worthy assessment system has to have multiple measures.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be defined by one data point in their life, whether it’s their age or their test score,” Andrews said.

Standardized test scores can be affected by conditional factors, which have to be taken into account when evaluating students.

“I think you have to look at the big picture,” Andrews said. “What does one test score tell about a person?”

Admissions decided to focus on test-optional applications as part of the Enrollment and Strategic Scholarships Committee working on the Vision 2030 project.

“Test scores come with some biases that give advantage to certain segments of the population,” Davidson said. “As a community that is trying to increase the diversity of our student body, we want to remove something that could potentially be a barrier to admission.”

Admissions plans to evaluate the pilot’s success in two to three years after the students who were admitted to Augustana through the test-optional application have been in school for awhile.

Although the majority of students are still applying to Augustana the traditional way, 13 students have been admitted to Augustana through the test-optional application for the 2020-2021 academic year. The average GPA of those students is around a 3.65, according to Davidson.

“We feel that these are good students who have the potential for success,” Davidson said. “Sometimes we discover that they have really good test scores, but they’re just choosing to go a different route. Everyone shouldn’t assume that a student who chooses the test-optional route doesn’t have a good test score.”

Admissions has gotten positive feedback from students who have applied through the test-optional application, according to Ellis.

“I think students feel a lot of pressure to do well on a four-hour test that is not really reflective of their entire experience [or] who they are as students. To have the chance to showcase themselves in a more holistic way and tell their story in a way that is more representative of who they actually are and how successful they could be here is super exciting,” Ellis said. “And the applications we’ve read so far have been incredible.”

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