By Michelle Larkin and Nene Narh-Mensah

In July 2020, the University of Maryland made test score submissions optional for its application, a move some Maryland high schoolers believe made the admissions process easier for marginalized and low-income communities.

This university joined an increasing number of colleges who made tests optional during the COVID-19 pandemic and extended the option for the 2022 and 2023 application cycles. This came after applicants struggled to take standardized tests due to exam cancellations and the possibility of virus transmission.

Tori Newby, a senior at Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, submitted her test scores in her applications because she was proud of them and said she dedicated a lot of time and energy into studying for the exams — but she also said she had textbooks and other resources that her parents bought for her to help her study.

“Not everybody has those opportunities,” she said. “[Marginalized communities] have less access to the resources everyone else has.”

And many Maryland applicants have been taking advantage of the test-optional opportunity. The number of freshmen who applied to this university and submitted test scores in Fall 2021 decreased by 49 percent from the previous year, according to counts by the Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Assessment. ACT scores dropped by almost 51 percent.

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Nationally, the number of high schoolers taking the SAT declined by about 700,000 students from the class of 2020 to 2021, according to the College Board.

“It’s definitely not fair the way some people are able to study and able to get better scores than others,” Newby said.

While some students like Newby decided to submit their scores to this university, senior Emmanuel Makinde at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince George’s County said he did not submit his test scores because he believed they were below the university’s average scores.

Students who submit their test results tend to have higher scores, according to this university’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment. All of the benchmarks measured for each SAT score increased from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021. Two of the benchmarks for ACT scores increased as well, according to IRPA data.

Makinde said optional test scores make it easier in the admissions process. Privileged students have more access to paid private tutors and SAT programs, he said.

“The fact that we have this holistic process that allows us to look at where a student is coming from,” said Shannon Gundy, this university’s director of undergraduate admissions, told the Diamondback last year. “I do know that certain populations of students in the past haven’t performed as well on standardized tests than other students have.”

Gundy said they have always looked beyond test scores as it allows for the university to focus more on a student’s experiences and contextualize them alongside test scores if they are submitted. Their personalities are being shown through other application submissions such as personal essays and recommendation letters.

“I thought it was sharing a good part of myself,” said Babatunde Gbadegesin, a Charles Herbert Flowers High School graduate who also applied to this university. “[It] made them learn about me.”

University President Darryll Pines told The Diamondback along with making the SAT and ACT optional, the university accepting from the Common Application along with Coalition applications has been effective in increasing diversity.

The change allowed a larger number of both in-state and out-of-state students to apply, greatly increasing the number of total applications, Pines said.

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The Fall 2020 semester was the first time students of color made up the majority of the university’s non-international freshman class. That remained the case in 2021.

“This is really exciting for us because I think we were trying to address some concerns about diversity, equality and this sort of demographic shift that you see in the declining number of high school graduates,” Pines said. “I think we were getting each one of them accordingly.”

Dr. Julie Park, an associate professor in the college of education who researches trends in higher education, said while making the tests optional does help, universities need to take a more holistic look at their application and recruitment process.

An addition to the holistic process could be improving financial aid, she said. And when it comes to optional test policies, there’s still research being done on the effects its widespread adoption would have on the college landscape, Park said.

“Test scores are really something that are … always going to be gamed, for those who … use them to get a leg up,” Park said. “Because the system is so broken, we need a radical rehaul of admissions.”