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Going 360: Kansas City-area colleges, universities explore future of standardized testing

Posted: 5:19 AM, Oct 06, 2022
Updated: 2022-10-07 13:50:33-04
360 Tests Main Image.jpg

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Earlier this fall, the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg announced changes to the university’s largest scholarship program, placing less emphasis on standardized test scores. 

UCM is one of several institutions around the Kansas City area transitioning away from the test-required model that has long been a staple of the college application and scholarship process. 

KSHB 41 is taking this story 360, talking to:

- Senior high school students

- A college access coordinator

- College admissions officers

- An ACT board member

- A standardized test tutor

Senior high school students

Rayonna Gibson

Rayonna Gibson and Alejandro Espino are several months into their final year at Northeast High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Both students are involved in activities around the school and do well with class work. 

Gibson says just the idea of taking the ACT gives her a heightened level of anxiety.

“I actually haven't taken it yet because I'm scared to take it,” Gibson said. “But I hear it's really hard to even get an 18. I just haven't taken it just because I don't want to see the score yet. Everyone I've met has taken it multiple times, and it's still a lower score, but they practiced for it and practiced for it, and they just don't get a good score.”

Espino is one of those students. He considers the ACT to be the final barrier to getting into college. 

“Some students, basically kind of like me, they have a good GPA, they're a great student,” Espino said. “I think the ACT shouldn't count into getting into college based [on] your score. I think it should count more like your academic work, what you did here, what stuff you were associated with, [and] what programs you were in. Basically, saying that any type of student that is a good student, even though they don't have a good ACT score, can go to college.”

Alejandro Espino

Espino didn’t know what to expect the first time around, but he still struggled in his second attempt even though he was more prepared. 

“Even though I do study, I kept getting the same score,” Espino said. “I think the ACT is just a little bit too hard. I don't know if it's too hard for other students, but I think it's basically hard on me.” 

Gibson explained that even with most classes at Northeast offering ACT practice, it’s still difficult for students to prepare for putting pencil to paper. 

“Not everyone here has graduated college or even finished high school, so it's hard to prep the rest of the kids to take the test when most of our parents haven't even taken the test,” Gibson said. 

Neither student enjoys taking tests despite doing well with class work. For Gibson, who attended an ACT test session but left before finishing, the problem is the environment. 

“The settings that they put you in, the quietness that they put you in and how the whole energy in the room, it's never the same as a regular classroom and I feel like that also is what throws the test off,” Gibson said.

Gibson wouldn’t do away with testing overall, she just wishes the setting was more relaxed. 

“I just feel it's such a sit still, don’t move, don't look at anything else but your paper type of way and I don't like that,” Gibson said. “I understand it's for cheating and stuff like that, but a comfortable space would not hurt a test.” 

She’s more in favor of colleges focusing on GPA instead of standardized tests. 

“Why not look at the GPA of what they've done this entire year instead of the ACT when you've just put the information there and it's like, what do you remember? I feel like that's not fair.”

Manager of College Access and Success Joyce Nguyen Hernandez

Joyce Nguyen Hernandez

To get the perspective of someone who works closely with students, KSHB 41 stayed at Northeast High School and spoke with a college access coordinator.

Joyce Nguyen Hernandez works with Kansas City, Missouri, Public Schools as the district’s Manager of College Access and Success. 

Nguyen Hernandez recognizes that Gibson and Espino are not exceptions to the rule when it comes to students trying to get access to higher education. She acknowledges there may be external factors to a student’s low test score. 

“We have students who make the honor roll and don't necessarily have that prized score,” Nguyen Hernandez said. “And that might not be attainable just because they've experienced a lot of setbacks with COVID, maybe unemployment in their home and other issues.”

Nguyen Hernandez says universities have been moving away from the long-established formula of standardized test requirements in recent years. 

“I understand there might be an easier way to do something, but I think colleges are discovering they need to recruit many students so that they can have a robust program, and they need to think beyond the traditional formula that they were using,” Nguyen Hernandez said.

Nguyen Hernandez has noticed a parallel between colleges and K-12 schools and thinks changing the admissions process gives students an opportunity to move forward academically. 

“You have staff shortages, you have decreased student populations as people are considering other ways to go to school or find other opportunities for work,” Nguyen Hernandez said. “Allowing this kind of open admissions gives students who may have been forgotten about this chance to experience higher education.”

While she sees more and more universities putting less emphasis on standardized tests, she isn’t advising students to overlook the ACT or SAT. 

“I don't think that's fair [to students] because there are too many schools and too many scholarship programs, internships that may still require a standardized test score,” Nguyen Hernandez said.

Nguyen Hernandez understands that taking the test can be costly, which is why the district offers free tests within the school. She said offering free tests at the school makes for a comfortable setting and gives the student more confidence. 

For students who want to make college a part of the next chapter in their lives, she encourages them to seek out an adult in their building and ask questions.

“Don't sit there silently, wondering, hoping that you'll figure out the answer because if you don't have individuals who maybe can share those experiences, give you solid advice, tell you where to turn to then I think those adults are in your school buildings,” Nguyen Hernandez said. 

Associate Vice President for Admissions Micaela Lenhart

Micaela Lenhart
Rockhurst University Underrepresented Students Stats by Real Time Team

At Rockhurst University, a private, liberal arts institution with a total enrollment of a little over 3,600 students, there were many conversations about the admissions and scholarship process. 

Associate Vice President for Admissions Micaela Lenhart has been with Rockhurst for over four years and led the charge in the decision to become test-optional in 2019.

Following the change, Rockhurst only uses the score in admission and scholarship decisions if it increases the student’s overall admission criteria and/or scholarship level. The university changed its scholarship model as well, switching to a GPA-based model.

Rockhurst also does a holistic review of applicants by looking at their high school transcript and supplemental materials such as a resume, a personal statement and letters of recommendation. 

“Really, the student can put in their application whatever they feel showcases their talents the best,” Lenhart said.

Lenhart is conscious of the fact that not every student will have the same amount of resources, which is one of the reasons why the university went test-optional.

“If it's going to take a student three or four times to get to the score that they need and they don't have access to that test prep or to be able to take that test multiple times, they’re not given the same opportunity as somebody who does have access to that,” Lenhart said. 

Lenhart saw other colleges' difficulties in changing their admission and scholarship policies, but Rockhurst didn’t have those same issues.

“Having everybody understand and onboard, honestly, the campus was extremely receptive of that,” Lenhart said. “I have seen other institutions where a simple change such as moving from standardized tests to a Superscore, which is taking the best sub scores and then making a Superscore, that was really hard. Let alone removing the entire test score. But at Rockhurst, it was open arms.”

Since the change, the school reports it saw a six percent increase in first-generation college students, a seven percent increase in students of color and a four percent increase in Pell-eligible students after its first year as a test-optional institution. 

“We really took a look at who we are as an institution,” Lenhart said. “We're in the city for good. We wanted to make sure that we were serving not only the residents of Kansas City, but those around us [who] didn't feel that Rockhurst was an opportunity for them.”


Karen Goos

But what about a university with over five times the enrollment of Rockhurst?

Karen Goos is the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Kansas State University, a land-grant institution with a Research One (R1) designation.

K-State moved to a test-optional admissions policy in 2019 and made their scholarships test-optional a year later. 

A data-driven approach is one method the university uses for evaluating potential changes to admissions and scholarships.

“We need to take a look at what's happening and use the data to drive our decisions,” Goos said. “Again, making sure that students are the focal point of that. Not just what the world thinks we should do, but what does the data tell us that we should do?”

K-State also receives feedback from parents, who asked for more transparency regarding the college planning process. That feedback led to the university introducing a fully GPA-based scholarship for the summer 2023 semester.

K-State is observing how high schools are preparing their students as well. The university is still trying to understand how different classes are graded and weighed, which Goos said “seems to be inconsistent” across high schools.

Goos still believes GPA is a good indicator of student success.

“We know that there might be grade inflation, but what we see is a correlation between those high GPAs regardless of where they're coming from, and a student's ability to be successful in college,” Goos said.

The university has seen a 2.1% increase across all campuses in new freshman enrollment for fall 2022, with a 14% increase in African American students and a 6% increase in Hispanic students.

But making changes that are beneficial for every party involved is something Goos expects will always be a work in progress.

“We have to go ahead and balance making sure we're providing access and affordability as a land grant institution to all families who want to access a world-class education, with the balancing of what we can afford,” Goos said. “What kind of monies do we have available for scholarships, and how do we make sure that we're getting those in the hands that need it?”

KSHB 41 reached out to the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas for comment on their admission and scholarship policies, and both universities provided statements. 

Mizzou currently implements a pilot program, which is a short-term experiment that helps an organization learn how a large-scale project might work in practice. The pilot program is based on test-optional admissions for students applying to enter the university in 2023. It is not intended as an admissions policy change, according to the university. 

The university assesses each student based on their specific academic merit. 

Only two groups of students are required to submit a test score, homeschooled students and students coming from a school that is not accredited. 

Mizzou has been reviewing its scholarships since several of its automatic scholarships require a standardized test score. 

The University of Kansas sought permission from the Kansas Board of Regents to eliminate the testing requirement for admissions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, KU no longer requires test scores for admission or merit-based scholarships. The university offers merit-based scholarships based solely on high school GPA that are guaranteed for four years. 

You can find more about KU’s scholarships here and the university’s assured admissions criteria here.

ACT Center for Equity in Learning Vice President Tina Gridiron

Tina Gridiron

Vice President Tina Gridiron is approaching her three-year anniversary at the ACT Center for Equity in Learning.

She described the Center’s focus and how it helps students, specifically underrepresented ones, who want to take the ACT. 

“It has been a great opportunity to explore the many ways that ACT is committed to first-generation students, students of color, students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities,” Gridiron said. "Our center builds connections with organizations that are supporting those students and embeds great work that ACT can do or can bring to the table to advance students' success.”

Gridiron is aware of the inequities that are a part of the education system but said that the ACT only brings those issues to light.

“When there is a gap that is revealed, what we know is that all of the inputs that occurred in a student's life before they took the assessment created the gap, and the assessment is revealing it,” Gridiron said. “If [they] don't take the assessment, we don't know where gaps exist.”

Like Nguyen Hernandez, she also recommends that students take the ACT to help get them ready for academics after high school.

“By taking an assessment, you have better knowledge about where you are strong and where there are areas still for further development and growth,” Gridiron said.

Plus, if students do well on the ACT, then colleges will notice.

“When you take the ACT, and you do well, many institutions come to you with an interest in exploring if you are the right fit and if their institution is the right fit for your interests,” Gridiron said. 

Gridiron said that ACT has done research on grade inflation, which is when students are awarded higher grades than justified, leading to a higher grade point average. 

Still, Gridiron suggests students to be active inside the classroom.

“It better prepares them for college and [their] career,” Gridiron said. “It introduces them to lots of creative ways that they can show excellence in their academic journey.”

CEO of TestGeek Zack Robinson

Zack Robinson

Zack Robinson is CEO of TestGeek, a company that sets up in-person standardized test prep tutoring.

When asked if doing well on a standardized test is an acquired skill, Robinson compared a test score to a mile time.

“Some people might start out faster than others, and everyone can get much, much better,” Robinson said. 

According to CollegeVine, if a student’s SAT or ACT scores fall within 60 points of the 25th percentile score (SAT) or three points of the 25th percentile score (ACT) for accepted students at the college in question, then they should submit their score.

Even though that statistic was surprising to Robinson, it’s advice that TestGeek recommends to students.

Robinson also recommends that students brush up on some concepts covered in previous grades to help their practice. 

“One thing a lot of people don't realize is that both tests cover a lot of stuff from eighth- and ninth-grade core material,” Robinson said. “So they might be rusty on that. For some students, they know that really well.”

Just like the cost of taking a test, Robinson knows tutoring for it can be pricey. He points to free test prep services with the Khan Academy and test prep videos on YouTube videos as some inexpensive alternatives.

“Ten, 15, 20 years ago, I think that the lack of access to information about what was going to be tested and how to get better at it was more of an issue than it is today,” Robinson said.

To describe how important taking a standardized test is, Robinson referenced MIT's decision to reverse its test-optional policy, returning to a test-required model. 

“One thing they found is that for a significant number of students who would apply to MIT, the test score is actually a perk on their application,” Robinson said. “They found a significant number of those students are actually from rural and traditionally underserved communities. I think that as a student, there's a chance that a test score could actually be a plus sign on your application, not a minus sign.”