‘Smoking-Gun’ Data on North Carolina ACT Scores

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an article originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal on June 6, 2024. It is crossposted here with permission.

Earlier this year, the UNC Board of Governors approved a new system-wide admissions policy requiring standardized tests only for students whose high school GPAs are less than 2.8. This comes after years of testing waivers that began in 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the limited availability of tests.

The new policy provides an important additional metric for many schools in the UNC System. But it is meaningless at the two most competitive public institutions. I wrote at the time:

[T]he new policy would make the System’s most competitive schools—UNC-Chapel Hill and [NC State]—effectively test optional. This would make it harder for admissions officers to make distinctions between the thousands of students whose GPAs qualify them for admission. At UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, 95 percent of freshmen admitted in fall 2022 had a GPA of 4.0 or higher. None had a GPA of less than 2.99. Admissions officers would be forced to rely on more subjective and less reliable admission criteria such as personal essays and letters of recommendation.

New data confirm that the policy is indeed inadequate.

During the pandemic-era test-optional period, many students who attended public high schools in North Carolina still took the ACT during their junior years, as required by North Carolina law. This set up an interesting natural experiment since the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction collected these ACT scores from high schools and shared them with the UNC System. Therefore, we know the ACT scores of all public university students who applied to UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State during the test-waiver period, regardless of whether they submitted those scores for use in the admissions process.

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