Removing a barrier to higher ed: Standardized tests optional under new Colorado law

For high school students who want to go to college in Colorado, standardized tests like the ACT and SAT will no longer be required as part of the application process. On May 25, Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation that Colorado State University’s admissions leaders say will create more opportunities for all students, especially those from low-income and underserved backgrounds.

“At CSU, we’re thrilled to be able to remove this hurdle that we know prevented some very capable students from being admitted to in-state colleges for a variety of reasons, such as not being able to afford to take the prep classes to boost their test scores, or to reduce test anxiety by taking the test multiple times like some of their peers,” said Heather Daniels, director of admissions. “Because of this action by the legislature and the governor, we’ll see a more diverse applicant pool and we’ll be able to offer admissions to more students, which is what we want to see as an institution focused on access and success.”

CSU’s representative in the state legislature, Rep. Cathy Kipp (D-Fort Collins) co-sponsored

House Bill 21-1067, which says a public institution of higher education “may, but is not required to, require a national assessment test score as an eligibility criterion for admission.”

The bill also requires institutions to gather data and provide detailed reports about whether the change is achieving its intended effects. CSU Provost and Executive Vice President Mary Pedersen thanked Kipp and other legislators for moving the bill forward and the governor for signing it into law.

“As Colorado’s land-grant institution, with a mission of access and inclusive excellence, CSU believes optional testing will remove barriers and provide greater opportunities for students who want to pursue higher education,” said Pedersen. “This legislation now allows CSU and other institutions in the state to align with the same best practices in optional testing policies that have been adopted by more than 1,600 other universities across the nation.”

Unified coalition of support

The game-changing bill passed after a full-court press by students, educators and institutions across the state. Among those who testified was CSU Vice President for Enrollment and Access Leslie Taylor, who says the data showing low-income bias of the standardized tests is overwhelming.

“The tests are so biased against low-income students that, in retrospect, it’s incredibly unfortunate for Coloradoans that we ever used them,” Taylor said. “It was one of the most rewarding and delightful moments of my career to see all of Colorado’s colleges and universities form such a powerful and unified voice supporting students and access to higher education.”

Colorado State Capitol

Other state higher education action

HB-21-1173 Prohibiting legacy preferences. Gov. Polis signed a first-in-the-nation bill prohibiting legacy preferences in the admissions process at public institutions of higher education, although the practice had not been part of the process at Colorado State University.

SB-2129 Requiring in-state tuition for members of Native American tribes with historical ties to Colorado. This is already policy at CSU, where President Joyce McConnell shared support for expanding the practice statewide in The Denver Post in February. The bill has passed the state Senate and is under deliberation in the House.

In recent years, CSU’s holistic approach to admissions has put significantly less emphasis on standardized tests, focusing more on factors like class grades, the types of courses the student took, and persistence in the face of obstacles or challenges.

“All these other factors are so much more impactful than a four-hour test that a student takes on a Saturday,” Daniels said, noting that this year, with tests optional, the number of applications increased and more students were accepted while the academic profile of the incoming class also improved.

The pandemic may have sped up the change to test-optional admissions in Colorado. As ACT and SAT testing sessions were being canceled across the country because of COVID-19 last summer, Colorado’s colleges and universities received a one-time waiver from requiring test scores from 2020 applicants. Pedersen said that provided a test-run of something CSU had been pushing for years.

“For more than a decade, controversy over the use of national assessment test scores has become increasingly centered around the issue of equity,” she explained. “But certainly the pandemic has taught us many lessons in higher education, including the need to continue to constantly assess what we do and the impact to our students, and to transform our culture and practices to create better outcomes.”