University of Missouri students sit at socially-distant tables on Tuesday Nov. 10, 2020, in the MU Student Center.
University of Missouri students sit at socially-distant tables Nov. 10, 2020, in the MU Student Center in Columbia, Missouri. When the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to access ACT and SAT test sites, the university put in place a test-optional process for admissions and scholarships. (Jacob Moscovitch/The Beacon)

The pandemic may be accelerating the movement to drop standardized testing requirements for college admissions — including in the Kansas City region.  

More than 1,800 four-year accredited colleges and universities say test scores are optional for fall 2022 admissions, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. 

The center’s chronological list of when colleges dropped testing requirements indicates that about two-thirds of the schools made the decision between spring 2020 and fall 2021.  

While some of those policies are temporary COVID-19 adjustments due to difficulties accessing testing centers, they also reflect a changing attitude toward standardized tests.

In the Kansas City area, some universities dropped testing requirements for admissions before the pandemic because of concerns about equity and access. Others plan to continue changes made during the public health crisis. 

But access to financial aid for students who don’t take standardized tests has lagged behind admissions policies at some local schools. That is also changing.

“I think (standardized testing is) a nostalgic barrier in that we recognize that it might not be the best determinant of success,” said Andrew Davis, senior director of enrollment and student success at Park University. “I think the pandemic put a magnifying glass on that.”

Eliminating ACT requirements to reduce disparities, improve access in Kansas City

Before the pandemic restricted access to standardized tests, the University of Missouri-Kansas City was already moving forward with a plan to make ACT or SAT scores optional. 

Elora Thomas, director of admissions at UMKC, said research showed the tests were restricting access for the very students the university was meant to serve — those from the urban core of Kansas City. 

She said some students were capable of succeeding in college but weren’t good test takers, couldn’t afford test preparation programs or had trouble accessing the tests at all. 

Standardized tests can cost up to $85, though fee waivers are available for the ACT and for the SAT. Students can qualify for a waiver based on various factors, including receiving free or reduced-price school lunch.  

Thomas said staff members studied other universities with test-optional policies and, in December 2019, got permission from the University of Missouri System Board of Curators to make tests optional. 

By April 2020, the university began admitting students under the new policy, and within a few months it accepted between 300 and 400 students who would normally have been denied or admitted provisionally, she said. 

As of Nov. 3, 424 students for the 2022 incoming class have been admitted under the test-optional policy, Thomas said. 

UMKC isn’t the only state university to drop testing requirements. In Kansas, both the University of Kansas and Kansas State University have made ACT or SAT scores optional, as has the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. 

The University of Missouri-Columbia temporarily made testing optional during the pandemic but may resume the requirement. 

In the Kansas City area, local community colleges and private universities such as William Jewell College, Rockhurst University, Donnelly College, Park University and Avila University also offer test-optional admissions. 

One argument against requiring test scores has been that the ACT and SAT show racial, gender and income disparities in their scores. 

For example, a study from the University of California, Berkeley found that race, parental education levels and income accounted for 35% of test score differences for University of California applicants. Meanwhile, test scores were able to uniquely predict only about 2% of the variation in student success. 

Public universities in California recently stopped requiring the test scores after a lawsuit alleged discrimination related to race, income and disabilities. 

Kansas City colleges say students are successful under test-optional admissions

Thomas said that so far, students admitted under the UMKC test-optional policy have had strong retention rates. UMKC is offering them some of the same support given to students admitted provisionally. 

Park University has offered test-optional admissions for seven or eight years without seeing a negative impact on student success, said Davis, the Park University director of enrollment.

Rather than focusing only on predicting student success, Davis added, Park University strives to help all students succeed, such as by offering them resources or using placement tests to ensure they enroll in the right classes. 

“At the end of day, it still comes down to the individual student’s experience and whether they’re obtaining the resources they need to be successful,” he said. 

Students applying for the fall 2022 semester at MU don’t need to submit test scores. 

But the university hasn’t yet decided whether that policy will become permanent, said Chuck May, director of the MU admissions office. 

May said the temporary policy is in place because not all students have been able to access in-person standardized testing during the pandemic. 

Under normal circumstances, MU finds test scores helpful for admissions decisions. While high school GPA and ACT or SAT scores are each good predictors of student success and retention on their own, “both of those together provide the best predictor of first-year success for students at Mizzou,” May said. 

May said the temporary policy is a pilot program and that “it’s too early to say” whether it will end or not. 

“This spring, we will take a very close look at those students who were admitted through the test-optional program … and we will see how they did,” he said. 

ACT or SAT scores and financial aid

At Kansas City-area colleges, many scholarships are still tied to test scores. But that is gradually changing.

For example, at UMKC, Missouri and Kansas residents can receive automatic scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 per year based on GPA and standardized test scores.

Universities typically define “automatic scholarships” as noncompetitive ones awarded to every student who meets straightforward criteria, such as applying before the scholarship deadline and having a specific GPA and/or standardized test scores.

Beginning in May, the university added the Roo Blue Awards — automatic scholarships awarded based on GPA alone. But the dollar amount is lower: $1,000 to $2,000 per year. 

Other area schools where students with high test scores can have a financial aid advantage include: 

But at some schools, scholarship amounts are similar regardless of whether the student opts to take the tests.

The University of Kansas calculates merit scholarships based on GPA alone. Kansas State University has a separate scholarship process for test-optional students but offers similar award amounts. 

Under its temporary test-optional policy, MU reviews scholarship applications holistically, with emphasis on the high school GPA, May said. Students applying for admission without a test score also submit additional writing samples, including a list of extracurriculars. 

Donnelly College asks students who don’t have ACT scores or aren’t happy with them to take a free placement exam. It then translates the results into an equivalent ACT score, allowing students to participate in the normal automatic scholarship calculation

Park University is one of the newest additions to the list of schools that has removed standardized test requirements for financial aid. 

In 2020, the university started using GPAs and student narratives as the primary way to award scholarships. Some of the most competitive scholarships also require an interview with faculty members. 

Davis sees it as one of many COVID-19-inspired changes that will stay in place. 

“There’s lots of things from the pandemic that are going to stick around,” he said. “It’s like to-go food: No one wants curbside to-go to go away.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.