Illinois University Drops Use of Standardized Tests in Admissions

Illinois University Drops Use of Standardized Tests in Admissions
Students pass by Cole Hall as they walk to class at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., on Feb. 25, 2008. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

DeKalb-based Northern Illinois University announced that it will stop using standardized tests in its undergraduate admissions process and will instead admit every applicant with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher.

Some evidence suggests the school’s decision may be related to the fact that it’s having a hard time attracting students.

Standardized testing has been part of the American educational experience since the 1800s, but its use expanded after the enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, which began to require annual testing in all 50 states. Student achievement has slipped since then, leading some to blame the testing itself for students’ shortcomings. But others champion the tests, which they claim fairly and objectively measure students’ achievements.

The move is meant to “eliminate unnecessary and biased barriers,” NIU President Lisa Freeman said in a statement. The policy change “comes from our deep commitment to making a college education both accessible and equitable for a broad and diverse student population.”

Provost Beth Ingram added that a student’s grade point average would suffice in the future because it makes standardized testing scores “irrelevant.” She said the school was optimistic that the new policy would “encourage good students to focus on getting the most out of their high school classes.”

As of the fall 2021 semester, high school seniors applying to the school won’t have to forward standardized test scores, according to NIU.

Standardized testing has long come under fire from both left and right, criticized as part of a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to education that fails to take into account students’ particular aptitudes and needs.

Some complain that the testing regimen favors well-off students who can afford to take courses to prepare for the various tests.

Some even say it laid the foundation for the college admissions bribery scandals of 2019, in which rich and famous parents paid large sums of money to get their children into college on fraudulent grounds.

There is a similar hostility among parents and some education activists about Common Core standards. Past polling suggests that Americans nationwide are skeptical of Common Core, but the program, aimed at applying uniform standards for measuring academic progress across the country, remains in effect across most of the United States.

But while NIU has been claiming that standardized testing is now obsolete, its enrollment figures, which have been dropping, tell another story, an analysis of state data by The Chicago Tribune suggests.

Although the number of first-time freshman students enrolled at NIU has been steady for some years, overall enrollment has plummeted 32 percent since 2009.

Two other state schools, Southern Illinois University and Western Illinois University, are now embracing “test-optional” policies after their enrollment rates fell dramatically.

Enrollment at Southern Illinois University fell 42.5 percent since 2009, from 20,350 to 11,695 students. At Western Illinois University, enrollment came down 40 percent in the same period, from 12,679 to 7,624.

The dropping of standardized tests in admissions by these state schools came after pressure forced the New York-based College Board in August 2019 to withdraw its proposed “adversity score” from the SAT, which is used in the college admissions process. The organization develops and administers K–12 and post-secondary tests and curricula used to facilitate college admissions. That change, now abandoned, would have generated a score based on the socioeconomic background of the student writing the test.

Parents, educators, and scholars such as Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute had protested the adversity score, saying it would institutionalize race as a factor in college admissions and would encourage admissions fraud.