Throughout high school, Nicholas Miles built what he considered to be an impressive resume. He was the student body president for three years and served as president of the band. He was involved in several clubs and an effort to eliminate his school’s Native American mascot. He had a 3.8 grade point average.

When it came time to take the SAT, though, Miles was disappointed when his score came back lower than he was hoping for. As an aspiring pre-dental student, he worried it would hurt his chances in college admissions. “I don’t think an SAT score did any justice for me, and I think a school should want me for me and what I can bring to them other than just being able to memorize standardized testing,” said Miles, 19.

The University of New England freshman is among the first classes at the school to be admitted under a test-optional policy the university has since extended to become test-blind, meaning tests won’t be considered in admissions even if students want to submit them.

Dropping requirements for the SAT and ACT is a growing trend nationally that has been accelerated by the pandemic. About 1,700 four-year bachelor-degree-granting institutions announced test-optional or test-blind admissions policies for fall 2021, compared to about 1,100 that had such policies in place prior to the pandemic, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a national testing reform organization. There are about 2,330 accredited four-year schools. About 1,400 have said they won’t require testing for fall 2022 admissions and more could follow.

“The movement was growing before the pandemic, but the pandemic forced schools to look more quickly at their admissions hurdles and take action they might not have taken for several years down the road,” said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the Arlington, Massachusetts-based center.

Prior to the pandemic some schools were making the decision to move to test-optional policies due to competition as well as concern that testing presents barriers to students who don’t perform well on standardized exams or who lack access to the preparation and fees associated with them.

Several colleges in Maine, including Bowdoin and Bates, which were among the first in the nation to adopt test-optional policies in 1969 and 1984, respectively, have been test-optional for years. “There were already lots of positive examples out there, so when the pandemic shut down testing in many parts of the country, it was relatively easy for schools to say, ‘We’ll just follow those others that have gone test-optional,'” Schaeffer said.

A woman walks across the Biddeford campus of the University of New England on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At Colby College in Waterville, Vice President of Enrollment and Communications Matt Proto said the college’s move to test-optional in 2018 has played a role in growing applications, which hit a record-high of 15,857 this year. More important, though, Proto said test-optional has encouraged students who might otherwise not have applied to do so.

“We want to attract artists. We want to attract innovators,” said Proto, who also serves as dean of admissions and financial aid. “We want to attract people who really see the world in different ways who may not perform well on tests but can add to that classroom environment because of the way they see the world.”

In the University of Maine System, the flagship Orono campus announced a new test-optional policy in March 2020 in response to the challenges the pandemic posed for students trying to take the SAT or ACT. All seven undergraduate institutions are now test-optional and will stay that way post-pandemic. Applications across the UMaine System are flat this year, with 29,211 received to date.

Husson University in Bangor also adopted a new test-optional policy for the 2021 application cycle.

“We do find sometimes the testing with the SAT and ACT can be a barrier to entry for students, so waiving those did take away that barrier,” said Melissa Rosenberg, director of admissions at Husson. She said that’s especially true for students of lower socioeconomic status, who may not be able to afford to take the test or to take it more than once, or first-generation students who don’t have the same support from parents as they navigate the admissions process.

Next year Husson will be test-optional for its business, communications, legal studies and humanities programs but will resume the requirement for standardized tests in health programs, such as physical therapy, pharmacy and nursing. Those programs are capped and the tests provide one more tool for evaluating applicants. They also serve as a good predictor of how a student might perform on a licensure exam, Rosenberg said.

When UNE decided to pilot a test-blind policy last year, it was only the fourth institution in the country to do so, said Vice President of University Admissions Scott Steinberg. There are now close to 70.

Over the last year Steinberg watched his own daughter, a high school senior, and her friends experience the cancellation of test dates. As they looked at test-optional institutions, they wondered whether they would be penalized for not submitting test scores. “We thought about that at UNE and we decided the clearest, most convincing signal we could send to students and parents and guidance counselors would be to completely take the tests off the table, and that’s what test-blind does,” Steinberg said.

The policy follows an earlier move by UNE two years ago to go test-optional for the fall of 2019 admissions cycle. The university received a record number of applications – around 5,500 – as about 25 percent of applicants chose not to submit test scores. It also admitted one of its largest freshman classes, which included a 25 percent increase in the number of students of color. “That follows the national data, which show test-optional policies often appeal to students of color and that certainly applied in our case,” Steinberg said.

Advocates say standardized tests can help applicants stand out in a crowded field of students who may have similar grades and other qualifications.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, said in a statement that during the pandemic it continued to see demand from students for the exam. The board also offers financial assistance and help with test preparation through a partnership with Khan Academy and by offering test fee waivers.

“When used in context, the SAT helps colleges enroll a more diverse group of students,” the statement said. “In 2020, hundreds of thousands of underrepresented students had SAT scores that would strengthen their college applications. Students should have the choice to distinguish themselves by submitting scores as part of their application.”

Ryan Sears, a sophomore at the University of New England studying history and secondary education, supports the Biddeford school’s test-optional policy, saying “it’s good for students to de-stress about the whole college application process.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The ACT said testing offers financial advantages as tests often magnify and maximize scholarship possibilities. The data collected by the testing agencies can also be used by universities to inform decisions on recruitment, course placement, retention and graduation. The ACT recently engaged a market research firm to study the impact of COVID-19 on the testing landscape.

“This research confirmed that the pandemic swung the pendulum towards test optional policies,” the ACT said in a statement. “It may never swing all the way back, but it’s clear that schools want students to have a choice in the matter. Therefore, test blind is unlikely to take root.”

At UNE, Steinberg said that while test-blind was originally announced as a pilot, it is likely it will continue beyond 2022. “I think you’re going to see this as a growing trend,” he said.

Ryan Sears, a sophomore at UNE, supports the policy and said it would help alleviate some of the stress and pressure on students during the admissions process.

“I do really like having a school that is test-optional,” Sears said. “I think it’s good for students to destress about the whole college application process but also to focus more on being good at sports, grades, overall activities and jobs, which I think schools should be looking at.”


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