Study Snapshot: Missed Exams and Lost Opportunities: Who Could Gain from Expanded College Admission Testing?
Study Snapshot: Missed Exams and Lost Opportunities: Who Could Gain from Expanded College Admission Testing?

For Immediate Release: June 25, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Missed Exams and Lost Opportunities:
Who Could Gain from Expanded College Admission Testing?

Study:Missed Exams and Lost Opportunities: Who Could Gain from Expanded College Admission Testing?
Authors: Emily E. Cook (University of Virginia), Sarah E. Turner (University of Virginia)
Published online June 25, 2019, in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Main Findings:

  • Universal college admission testing in the state of Virginia could increase the number of high school graduates with test scores competitive for admission at universities in the state by as much as 40 percent—and at the most selective institutions, nearly 20 percent—with larger increases for low-income students.
  • In addition, policies that specifically target students with relatively high demonstrated academic performance have the potential to achieve many of the gains of universal testing in Virginia—capturing 89 percent of those non-takers predicted to achieve competitive test scores—at a lower cost.
  • The findings are consistent with results from other recent studies of policy changes in states like Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, and Michigan, which find that universal college admission test mandates increase the pool of students scoring at a level consistent with college-readiness. 


  • Using data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System, researchers at the University of Virginia examined how the number of students scoring at different levels on college admission tests would change under different policies, including a statewide mandatory college admission testing policy, as well as initiatives that encourage test-taking among targeted groups of students with relatively strong academic achievement.
  • While 25 states have adopted agreements with test providers to offer either the ACT or the SAT to all students, states like Virginia leave decisions about student participation in college testing to district policy and parental discretion. Missed college admission tests produce a substantial reduction in the pool of students positioned to apply to four-year postsecondary institutions.
  • In 2014, 56 percent of Virginia high school graduates took the SAT, but under a universal testing mandate, the authors found that approximately 32,900 additional students would have taken the SAT that year. While many of the additional test-takers under universal test-taking are unlikely to score at a level consistent with readiness for a four-year college, 24 percent of those test takers are predicted to have a combined score at or above 1000 on the math and verbal sections.
  • The study authors explain that potentially high-scoring non-takers are disproportionately economically disadvantaged. They predict that a universal testing mandate would increase the number of low-income non-black students scoring above 1000 on the SAT by over 80 percent, while the corresponding number of low-income black students is just over 40 percent, and for all other students, approximately 30 percent. Potentially high-scoring non-takers are also disproportionately likely to reside in small districts.
  • “Our work reinforces the work of other studies which show that there are a substantial number of students well-positioned to enroll in college who miss the key step of taking a college admission test,” said study coauthor Sarah E. Turner, a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. “Students from low-income families and those in relatively small districts are most likely to be absent from college admission testing.”
  • The authors also found that it may be possible to achieve significant gains in college admission test-taking among college-ready students without incurring the full costs of universal testing at the state or district level. Had all students in the state who scored at or above the 40th percentile on Virginia’s state 8th-grade Standards of Learning exams taken the SAT, the authors estimate that the tested population would have included about 89 percent of the observed non-takers predicted to score 1000 or higher.
  • “Mandatory testing is not free; costs include fees, time loss, and distraction for those students who are unlikely to gain from the additional testing, and the increased burden of administering tests for school counselors and administrators,” said Turner. “Evidence-based targeted outreach efforts, combined with interventions designed to reduce financial and administrative barriers for students and schools, may generate a significant increase in test-taking among the college-ready without incurring the financial and administrative burden of statewide testing mandates.”
  • While a number of universities across the country have adopted “test-optional” admission policies, the authors note that universal testing would still be of value to students, teachers, administrators, and policymakers because most four-year colleges require admission testing, test-optional schools tend to be small, and the exams relay important information to students.
  • “Admission tests provide critical information to students in two ways: first, the score can help a student create a well-matched application portfolio, and second, by taking an admission test, the student can participant in programs such as the College Board’s Student Search Service, which help colleges, scholarship programs, and other parties identify and reach out to students,” said Emily Cook, a coauthor and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia.
  • The authors addressed whether higher education institutions would be able to accommodate a substantial increase in the pool of students. They note that the most selective universities in Virginia are engaged in proactive efforts to increase the representation of low-income students. While these institutions might not increase total capacity in response, one would expect that the representation of low-income students would increase, making the institutions more meritocratic. Other public universities in the state have demonstrated considerable elasticity in enrollment over time, while small private colleges would welcome increased enrollment.
  • The authors emphasize that admission tests are incomplete indicators of “college readiness” or of whether a student is “well-matched” or “admission-eligible” at a particular college.
  • “College admission test-taking is but one gateway step in the process of college choice. Guidance about whether and when to take college admission tests ideally would be situated in comprehensive and personalized interventions to help high school students make better informed postsecondary choices,” said Turner. “Nevertheless, our findings provide further evidence that increasing the number of students taking admission tests can be beneficial.”

Periodically, AERA will issue a brief overview, or snapshot, of a recent study that has been published in one of its peer-reviewed journals. AERA "Study Snapshots" provide a high-level glimpse into new education research.

To read the full study, click here.

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About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.