The Meaning of NACAC: What the College Admissions Process Tells Us About Assessment

A few weeks ago, I attended my first ever NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) Conference in Houston.  It was a massive three-day affair attended by 6,000+ college admissions officers and their staff, high school college counselors from around the country, corporate representatives of all means of product designed to facilitate the college admissions process, and an assortment of presenters and advocates for reform of that process.  

As a former public high school teacher I have written more recommendation letters over the past 20+ years than I care to count, but never before had I heard from those controlling the admissions process just how the sausage is made.   I can tell you that the ingredients are undergoing profound changes and we won’t know the final recipe for some time.  The system is clearly at a moment of inflection, one that could potentially positively influence the quality and equity of K-12 schooling that serves as the pipeline of undergraduate students.

Colleges are coming to grips with their public trust as shapers of the citizenry and the workforce while simultaneously having to run an economically viable business.  The high school counselors attending the conference had a singular mission–what do I need to do to get my kids into college and how do I facilitate their being able to afford their college education.  They were deeply invested in understanding the decision making criteria of admissions officers.

In the sessions I attended and in private conversations I had with several admissions officers, the emphasis was plainly on a “holistic” decision-making process.  The message to the high school counselors was, take us at our word, no single factor overrides whether a student is offered a spot or not.  Counselors trained to look at minimum GPAs required for admission, specific courses that they think applicants need (calculus anyone?) and standardized test scores didn’t seem to want to believe them.  Is test-optional really test optional?  Or is not submitting a standardized test score a signal that the applicant simply wasn’t going to cut it?

The message from the vast majority of college admissions folk at NACAC was that test optional means that a student is not penalized for not submitting a standardized test score.  As the list on our website reveals, (see about 80% of colleges now use test optional or test free admissions.  The preliminary data presented at panels (one led by FairTest) and relayed to me informally from colleges, many of which are at least on their second cycle of test optional admissions, are that they are receiving roughly a third to 40% more applications than test-required pre-pandemic cycles, that only about half of applicants are submitting scores, and that crucially their applicant pools have become more diverse.  Colleges are conducting formal internal studies to see how the newly screened test optional pool of admittees fare in college and beyond.  Given the data we have from places that have been pursuing this policy for a long time, like Wake Forest, there is no reason to think that the non-submitting admittees will do less well than those students who submit the scores.

Furthermore, one of the largest drivers of admissions policy in the nation, the California public system, has instituted a test free policy and is unlikely to shift course.  As the deputy admissions director of UCLA pointed out, the test free policy removes all questions of gamesmanship from the application process.  Instead of using 13 criteria to judge a student’s application, they now use 12.  A high school counselor suggested that a student with a high SAT score might surreptitiously sneak the result into her application to gain advantage.  The UCLA official said that would result in automatic rejection because the student failed to follow directions.  So they are serious.  The explosion of applicants at UCLA (nearly 150,000 in the last cycle) and family income and diversity numbers indicate the policy is likely to take root.  As most universities realize standardized tests add nothing particularly positive to the admissions process that is vastly outweighed by the roadblock to diversity and talent they pose, test-free could become the new norm in the not-too-distant future.  

The other tectonic shift in admissions involves anticipating the Supreme Court’s likely abolition of affirmative action.  The challenge to diversity, equity, and inclusion for universities if race cannot be considered in any way in admissions, as it has been for over fifty years, is significant.  (Those interested in exploring strategies for admissions offices in dealing with that decision should participate in “Preparing for a Supreme Court Decision on Race Conscious Admissions,a webinar cosponsored by FairTest, ACCEPT, ACCIS and NACAC).  Coupled with affordability and access questions, attendees at the conference, encouraged by NACAC leadership,  were properly preoccupied with how to build and maintain equitable systems of admissions sensitive to both class and race.   The skewed wealth and racial disparities at the elite “rejective” colleges are plainly a problem of public policy and need addressing on multiple fronts.  From FairTest’s perspective, by eliminating the requirement of standardized testing for admission, at least colleges remove one barrier in their pursuit of more equitable admissions.

What could be the impact of a college admissions process that rejects standardized testing and that is more truly holistic in nature on K-12 education? One would hope that as standardized tests become less important in admissions, the value of standardized testing would become diminished and would gradually dissipate in the K-12 world.  A recognition that standardized tests are invalid measures in that they are of highly limited predictive validity for success in college should foster the realization that they are equally invalid for decisions about individual students, teachers and schools that have any tangible stakes.  Superior systems of performance-based assessment that allow for demonstration of knowledge, thinking and creativity would improve overall educational quality.

To further incentivize broader changes in K-12 assessment that support the kind of culturally sensitive and situationally appropriate deeper learning needed in a sophisticated multi-racial democracy with an advanced economy, colleges could require actual student work to be part of the admissions application.  Technology enables both high school transcripts and college applications to present and accept culminative student projects that demonstrate learned skills, persistence, problem solving and creativity that colleges say they want in their students.  At the conference I learned of MIT’s application that allows for students to submit examples of project-based work and of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business efforts to include evaluation of performance-based assessments in admissions decisions.  If colleges asked for these artifacts of learning, K-12 schooling would become invested in the pedagogy and assessment necessary to produce that kind of student work that is vastly superior to teaching to externally produced standardized tests.

The future of educational assessment holds great promise.  States, local districts, and schools should follow the lead of the majority of colleges and universities and view evaluation of student achievement more holistically.  The devaluation of standardized tests is a positive educational development across the school landscape.