UA makes test scores optional for 2021 admissions


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Libby Foster | @libithafoster, Contributing Writer

The University of Alabama is waiving its test score requirement for undergraduate admissions in 2021.  Applicants are still required to submit an official high school transcript, meet minimum unit requirements and complete the admissions application, but an ACT or SAT score is optional under the temporary policy. 

According to a UA press release earlier this month, the decision was made “due to the lack of access to standardized tests around the nation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Examination sites have limited their capacity this fall and some had to close all together earlier this year. 

The University has also seen a decrease in enrollment this semester. Preliminary fall enrollment numbers from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education found a 3.4% decrease in total undergraduate students. 

The new policy works to reverse these falling numbers. 

Matt McLendon, the University’s associate vice president for enrollment management, noted that the change will allow for increased enrollment. 

“We want to make sure we do all we can to keep our application numbers as high as we can,” said McLendon. 

He emphasized that the move to test optional admissions is part of a larger recruitment strategy, referencing the University’s ongoing use of its regional recruiter network and communication systems. 

Students who opt out of submitting scores in 2021 will be evaluated based on their GPA and their ability to meet minimum course requirements. All applying freshmen are required to have completed four units of English, four units of social sciences, three units of mathematics, three units of natural sciences and one unit of foreign language for admission. 

McLendon is confident that the change will not affect the quality of education at the University.

“The strongest correlator to both first and second year retention and graduation rate is performance within high school GPA,” said McLendon. 

Competitive merit scholarships are still available to students who do not submit standardized test scores next year. The admissions department has created an alternate grid that ranks these students into tiered categories based on their GPA and competitive scholarship application, with each tier correlating to a scholarship amount. 

The competitive scholarship application covers qualitative characteristics like extracurricular involvement and leadership experience. McLendon stressed that this virtual form is a necessary prerequisite for test optional students to receive a merit award. 

At the undergraduate level, the standardized test waiver is in effect for the spring, summer and fall of 2021. 

McLendon was unsure of how the pilot program’s results will be evaluated. 

“We really have to see how many students through this admissions cycle do or do not submit a test. I think some of that will dictate how we assess the efficacy of the program,” said McLendon. 

Dr. Kaiwen Man is an assistant professor in the UA Educational Studies Department, and much of his research involves the future of standardized testing. He agreed with McLendon’s assertion that GPA is an effective indicator of future performance, but also highlighted how a student’s GPA can be affected by their school district or a teacher’s bias. 

Man felt that using both GPA and test scores under normal circumstances eliminates this bias in admissions. 

“If we use both factors as references, it’s better than using one or the other,” Man said. “It’s a better prediction of a student’s potential to be successful.” 

Graduate programs at the University are also loosening standardized exam requirements. For the spring, summer and fall of 2021, approximately 90% of the University’s graduate programs have waived their GRE requirements. 

Prospective graduate students will be evaluated based on their transcripts of prior academic work,  statements of purpose and work experience. The admissions process at the graduate level is decentralized: each applicant will be reviewed based on their prospective program’s standards. 

Graduate programs saw a 16.2% increase in enrollment this year. Dr. Susan Carvalho, the associate provost and dean of the graduate school, attributes this to the difficult job market and the GRE waiver instituted in the fall of 2020. 

Carvalho pointed out that the graduate school has been placing less weight on the GRE in recent years. 

“We think the GRE is not the best indicator of a student’s potential for success,” Carvalho said. “It’s one indicator, but it’s not the best indicator.” 

Financial aid and scholarships for applying graduate students will not be affected by the GRE waiver. 

“Unlike undergraduate admissions, we didn’t have financial aid pegged to a quantitative test score in the past,” Carvalho said. “There’s no change in that respect at the graduate school.”

Carvalho underscored that admission, scholarship and financial aid decisions are made using a holistic approach at the graduate level. Professors consider every aspect of an aspiring graduate student’s application equally before making a decision. 

Carvalho predicts that the current widespread waiver could accelerate the graduate school’s shift away from standardized scores. 

“I anticipate that many programs will not return to requiring the GRE,” said Carvalho.