Understanding Cognitive Tasks Inside the Black Box: A Strengths-Based Comparative Case Study of Test-Optional Admissions
Kelly Slay

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Vanderbilt University

Primary Discipline

Higher Education
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, test-optional policies have expanded rapidly. Now over 1,800 schools use test-optional approaches in some form, signaling the upward trajectory of these policies in higher education (FairTest, 2022). Much of the prior research on test-optional admissions has focused on liberal arts colleges and used quantitative methods to examine effects on application and enrollment diversity. Recognizing that the removal of standardized tests could lead to more ambiguity in the ?black box? of admissions, the expansion of test-optional policies raises questions about how applications without test scores are evaluated by admissions personnel and the implications of these evaluative processes for students who are minoritized in higher education and stand to benefit most from the elimination of standardized tests. Using a strengths-based comparative case study design, this qualitative study examines the admissions review processes of test-optional institutions that, after implementing such policies, experienced increases in their enrollment of undergraduate students from racially/ethnically and/or socioeconomically underrepresented backgrounds. Informed by theory for equitable decision-making, I draw from interviews and observations and use cognitive task analysis to illuminate the mental processes that underlie observable behavior among admissions professionals at three public universities with differing socio-organizational contexts and test-optional approaches. Findings will expand our knowledge of a broader range of test-optional institutions, provide rich insights into different approaches to test-optional admissions, and reveal the cognitive mechanisms that help explain how these policies improve diversity. With concerns about the future of race-conscious affirmative action, clarifying what works and why in enhancing access and diversity through test-optional policies will be an important contribution to higher education.
About Kelly Slay
Kelly E. Slay is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy in the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. Her research examines issues of race, diversity, and equity in higher education and is primarily focused in three areas: (1) factors that shape college choice, completion, and career trajectories among Black students and other students minoritized in higher education (2) the use and equity implications of enrollment management policies, particularly in post-affirmative action contexts; and (3) how bans on race-conscious affirmative action shape the experiences of marginalized students. Two of her recent projects, both situated in the COVID-19 pandemic, examine the implementation of test-optional admissions and the college-going pathways of Black high school students. Dr. Slay?s research is published in the Review of Higher Education, Teachers College Record, and Educational Policy, among other outlets, including the recently co-edited book, Rethinking College Admissions. She is co-PI on a $1.7 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to examine pathways into teaching for teacher candidates of color in Tennessee. Her research has also been supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Center for Public Policy in Diversity Societies. Dr. Slay earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education (concentration in public policy) and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. She holds a M.S. in Public Service Management from DePaul University. Prior to joining Vanderbilt, Dr. Slay was a President?s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Maryland-College Park and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education.

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