A Year Like No Other: Test-Free at the UC

By Gary Clark

Editor’s note: In August 2020, NACAC released a report urging colleges and universities to examine their policies and practices concerning standardized tests and their potential impact on equity and access. This column is the fifth in a series of articles reflecting on the report’s recommendations and offering insight into the current state of standardized admission testing.

I’m not sure I ever thought I’d see that day at the University of California (UC) or  the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA), but here we are. On the heels of an admission cycle that mirrored the uncertainty and turmoil of the world around us, I’m being intentional about taking time to reflect on the year and lessons learned.

While the conversations regarding the continued use of standardized testing in UC admission began long before COVID, its onset certainly impacted the decision around test-optional versus test-free. Challenges regarding access to exams and accommodations needed by students were primary in discussions among our staff and faculty and, ultimately, the courts in California settled any lingering uncertainty. Each of the nine UC campuses moved to a test-free admission process and will continue this approach through the fall 2024 admission cycle.

At UCLA, the move to test-free certainly had an impact on both our application volume and the makeup of our applicant pool. Some of our largest increases came from underrepresented and high-performing students, as measured by both unweighted and weighted GPA. I infer that even with our previous efforts to consider scores in the context of the personal circumstances and educational opportunities available to students, standardized testing served as a barrier to students applying to UCLA. The increases in apps from these communities and from top performing students tells us that there were strong students each year who may have been scared off by the middle 50 percent of our test scores. No matter how hard we try to mitigate and contextualize the impact of testing on our review of applications, it isn’t enough to undo the perception still held by so many that test scores are one of the two great pillars of college admission (along with GPA). While we all earnestly message to students, families, and counselors about the holistic nature of our processes (for those campuses that utilize holistic admission), it’s never enough to undo the “yeah, but I heard…<<insert gospel according to the uninformed/under-informed source here>>.”

There was a time when my campus considered utilizing a test-optional process for this past cycle. We, like many other colleges and universities, championed the message of “optional means optional” and had begun planning our training to ensure that statement held true. I will offer, however, that test-free is clearer in many ways—for equity and access for less-resourced students, for universities from a training standpoint, and for families and students who are trying to determine if/when they should submit scores. While we were prepared to train our readers to read apps with and without test scores, not having to toggle between two frameworks certainly streamlined that training. In terms of how we approached our reading process, we continue to evaluate applicants based on the other 13 faculty-approved elements of comprehensive review within the UC system and felt that the full range of information collected from the student and through our application process provided more than enough information for us to make an informed decision.

Thus far, the results speak for themselves. We are enrolling one of the most academically accomplished and diverse classes in our history. I’m certain there will be much scrutiny over the academic performance of this class in their first year, but I would encourage anyone analyzing that data to recognize the overlapping impact of COVID on these students—both in their junior and senior years and leading into their first year on our campuses. These students are amazing and deserve all of the support and accolades we can offer them for enduring so many challenges in our world this past year.

While I’m proud of our profession for the steps we’ve made, I would encourage us to continue to challenge, engage, and push each other to look at other factors that continue to be barriers to college-going, especially for those most underrepresented in higher education. I’m inspired by the dedication of the people I know in this profession. Let’s continue to push ourselves and our institutions to do better.

Gary Clark is director of UCLA Undergraduate Admission and
served on the NACAC Task Force on Standardized Admission Testing for International and US Students.