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IOWA CITY — Following a vast and swift trend sweeping four-year colleges and universities nationally, the Iowa Board of Regents is moving to permanently eliminate the mandate that applicants to their public universities submit either SAT or ACT scores — ending the 63-year-old requirement.
The board Wednesday will consider the proposal, which comes after regents in August 2020 took the temporary step of waiving the standardized test requirement — first enacted in 1959 — given challenges COVID-19 posed for students wanting to take the tests.
The regent proposal will retain ACT and SAT scores as one of three factors freshman applicants need to achieve automatic admission to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — along with grade-point average and number of courses taken in core subject areas.
In-state students who achieve a calculated score of at least 245 on the “regent admission index” — or RAI — using those three metrics will continue to be automatically admitted to the university of their choice. Admission teams will use individual and holistic review in deciding whether to admit all other first-time undergraduate applicants.
“Analysis showed that while standardized tests do provide some additional information on student preparation, they are not strong predictors of student success outside of first-year college grades,” according to board documents recommending the change.
Since the board began using the RAI to automatically admit in-state students in 2009, it has employed an “admissions study team” to conduct biennial reviews of its effectiveness. The committee last March met to review the board’s temporary test-optional policy — given “a growing test-optional movement among colleges and universities nationally,” according to board documents.
The team compiled and analyzed data, interviewed high school principals and counselors, and assessed the national landscape — keeping access, student success and transparency as key tenets.
When cross-analyzing high school GPA and ACT scores with four-year college graduation rates, the team found the greatest success among students who scored relatively low on the ACT — achieving a score of 18 to 20 — but who worked hard enough to earn a 4.0 GPA.
About 93 percent of those students graduated college in four years, compared with 74 to 75 percent of 4.0 students who achieved ACT scores between 21 and 29. The cohort of 4.0 students who achieved elite-level ACT scores of 33 or higher had a four-year graduation rate of 81 percent, according to board documents.
GPA seemed the biggest tell of collegiate success, according to the regent analysis, with 2.0 students achieving a four-year graduation rate of only 9 to 20 percent — irrespective of ACT score. In fact, 2.0 students who scored 15 to 17 on the ACT had a higher graduation rate of 13 percent than the mere 9 percent of 2.0 students who graduated in four years after getting 27 to 29 on the ACT.
“The likelihood of graduating in four years was fairly consistent based on GPA,” according to board documents.
The study team in recommending the board nix the standardized test requirement also considered data revealing inequities in test supports, influencing outcomes.
“Uneven access to testing and test preparation programs can impact students from low-income and rural backgrounds, and result in differential access to the universities,” according to board documents.
Given the “wide adoption of test-optional policies among colleges and universities,” according to the study team, Iowa’s public universities risk putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by continuing to mandate the scores for admission.
Of UNI’s 10 peer institutions — like the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Eastern Illinois University — six have made the permanent move to test-optional, and three others are piloting test-optional policies.
Many institutions in UI’s Big Ten Conference and Iowa State’s Big 12 Conference are piloting test-optional policies as well — with at least three in the Big Ten and three in the Big 12 making the change permanent.
To act on the recommendation to eliminate mandatory ACT and SAT scores, embedded in the Iowa Administrative Code, the board must first file a notice of intended action — a move regents will consider Wednesday.
As of December, more than 1,815 accredited four-year colleges and universities had removed ACT and SAT test score requirements for high school seniors applying for fall 2022 — including many who stripped the mandate altogether, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Common App — an undergraduate college admission application used by more than 900 member colleges and universities, including UI, UNI, Iowa State and 13 other Iowa institutions — in a September report noted nearly 90 percent of its members didn’t require test scores for this fall.
It also reported only 40 percent of applicants submitted a test score in an application, down from 73 percent for the 2019-20 year and 70 percent for 2018-19.
Common App found “far higher average reporting rates among applicants living in more affluent communities, as defined by local median household income in applicants’ local ZIP codes.” And first-generation and underrepresented minority applicants were less likely to report test scores.
“Their rates of reporting also declined at sharper rates relative to 2019-20,” according to the Common App report.
Still, some have advocated for the continued use of standardized tests for college admission — noting they provide valuable information about college readiness and help prepare students for university-level learning.
ACT — first introduced to the world in 1959 by a UI professor and headquartered in Iowa City — has argued it is more than an admissions test in that it also helps students explore career and college options, prepare for higher-level academic work and communicate needs and interests with prospective campuses.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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