NIU Student Government Association President Naomi Bolden knows what it’s like to stress over standardized tests.
The Chicago native, graduating in December of 2020 with a double major of political science and journalism, said she suffers from test anxiety.
“I am one of those students who do not test well,” she said. “With that comes anxiety, fear of having to do well, fear that this number basically defines your future.”
Because of this, she commends NIU’s recent decision to eliminate the use of standardized test scores for general admission and merit scholarship decisions. This new “test-blind” policy will begin for students applying to NIU for the fall of 2021.
It’s a step forward for the university, Bolden said.
“I think NIU is making many leaps to try to set itself apart from other universities and give students more opportunity to go to college,” she said.
Any high school graduate who applies to NIU with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above will be guaranteed admittance. All freshman applicants will be automatically considered for NIU Merit Scholarships, based on their GPA. The sweeping change includes the University Honors Program, with students applying to that program for the fall of 2021 no longer required to submit standardized test scores.
“This new policy comes from our deep commitment to making a college education both accessible and equitable for a broad and diverse student population,” NIU President Lisa Freeman said. “It reflects our efforts campus-wide to eliminate unnecessary and biased barriers throughout a student’s educational path.”
The policy also has been guided and championed by shared governance including Faculty Senate, Baccalaureate Council and University Council, and has garnered support by students and educational leaders throughout the area.
“NIU faculty were instrumental in making this change and recognize that our students are more than a test score,” said NIU Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram, Ph.D.
National higher education studies and NIU’s own data show a student’s high school GPA is a better indicator of future academic success than performance on a standardized ACT or SAT test.
“Once we know a high school student’s GPA, one standardized test score is irrelevant,” Provost Ingram said. “The new policy will allow more students to take advantage of the life-changing educational opportunities we provide. We believe that this will encourage good students to focus on getting the most out of their high school classes, rather than on doing well on a one-off high stakes test.”
Student applicants with a GPA below 3.0 will be considered for admission to NIU based on a holistic review which will consider a broad spectrum of factors, such as academic preparation and performance, motivation, resilience and resourcefulness.
“This now allows us, much earlier in the process, to really get to know students on a more personal level,” said Sol Jensen, vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “We believe it also will help with retention efforts down the road as we’re able to individualize the resources and services our students need to succeed.”
The new practices aim to empower disadvantaged students without the means or resources to prepare for tests, and they reflect well-documented findings that standardized test scores often are more reflective of a student’s socioeconomic background than their academic abilities, Jensen said.
Research shows that the costs and inaccessibility of test preparation resources and courses often inhibit minority and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities.
Tiffany Harston, director of College Completion at Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago and a member of NIU’s newly formed Counselor Advisory Board, anticipates NIU’s new policy to open doors for numerous students, including many in Chicago.
“Oftentimes we pigeonhole our students and don’t give them the opportunities we know they’re very capable of doing because of a test score,” she said. “There are so many other things to be considered when looking at an individual and not a three-digit number. I’m excited NIU is looking from a wider scope.”
Students typically have access to take standardized tests at least once, but not all have the opportunity to retest or take part in any test preparation programs, said Beth Arey, college and career coordinator at Evanston Township High School and also a member of the NIU Counselor Advisory Board. Many can’t afford those resources, she said.
“That really puts students at a disadvantage,” she said. “Students are taking rigorous courses and doing well, but still not scoring as high on their tests. Earning the grades they need to be college-ready should be paramount.”
While a growing number of colleges have announced “test-optional” criteria, NIU is the first public institution in Illinois to adopt an entirely “test-blind” criteria for applicants.
“NIU is committed to equitable access, opportunity and success for students from diverse backgrounds where diversity is defined broadly. We believe that our learning environment is strengthened by the inclusion of students with different lived experiences. And in this context, we have committed to challenging and eliminating exclusionary practices,” President Freeman said.
“This meaningful change in our admissions and merit scholarship criteria has been embraced by the university community, because it reflects our values and supports NIU’s aspirations to be an engine for innovation to advance social mobility, promote personal, professional and intellectual growth, and empower students through educational excellence. I am proud to be a Huskie.”