Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FAll 2014

Carla Cortes discusses her research on test-optional admissions at a poster session for the Higher Education Administration and Policy program.

Carla Cortes (MS09): Pioneering Policy for College Admission


Carla Cortes
Photo by: Ray Whitehouse

When Carla Cortes (MS09) finished her master’s project in the Higher Education Administration and Policy program, she didn’t realize it would help to forge breakthrough policy in higher education. Her project on test-optional college admissions provided background for DePaul University to become the first large private university to admit students without scores from tests like the SAT and ACT.

After Cortes graduated from SESP, she began working as special projects manager in Enrollment Management at DePaul University in 2010. “I was excited to go there and put research into practice,” she says. As DePaul weighed the change to test-optional admissions, she was able to provide her research for white papers and foundational thought pieces.

“Can you admit students reliably on the basis of other criteria and be sure they’ll graduate?” is the question colleges ask. DePaul continues studying retention, grades and graduation rates for students admitted without tests. Meanwhile, Cortes is confident the new policy is broadening access to students from different groups.

In addition to access, Cortes’s job also focuses on improving student retention and attainment. “Access without attainment might be the worst outcome. It’s an empty promise,” she maintains.

Cortes’s interest in test-optional policies began with one of her four daughters’ test anxiety. She became concerned that college testing practices were less than educationally sound and more about gaming the system. “How many policies are further advancing the advantaged and disadvantaging the disadvantaged?” she asks. “My personal reflections and feelings were that higher education should provide access, and we should have policies that do that.”

In fact, research validates that students lower their expectations about college attendance based on lower test scores, even if they are good students. Instead of tests, the best predictor of college attainment is actually high school grades in core courses, Cortes notes. She points to a new report called Defining Promise by Bill Hiss that confirms non-submitters of test scores do just as well in college as submitters.

“An important message is that high school grades and curriculum really matter. Learning every day in the classroom is more important than cramming for a single test on one Saturday,” she says. In addition, “there is more and more research about the importance of non-cognitive factors, such as long-term plans, resilience, family support, grit and motivation.”

When Cortes began gathering data from colleges and high school counselors in 2006, the test-optional movement was just getting revved up. News from Bates College that students without test scores had grades and graduation rates just as high as other students caused a flurry in the higher education world. Now ever since a 2008 national report advised colleges to re-examine testing policies, “there has been a steady drumbeat of colleges going test-optional,” Cortes says.

With a University of Chicago master’s degree in public policy, Cortes came to SESP because she liked the School’s policy orientation. “I was drawn to bigger policy questions,” she says. As a student, she especially appreciated the fieldwork and the master’s project, which allows students to dig deeply into a topic of interest. “Learning how to be a researcher was very, very invaluable—I use it all the time in my job,” she says. In addition, an internship in the Office of Change Management at Northwestern opened her eyes to diverse challenges and gave her a broad overview of a complex university.

“The Higher Education program does a very nice job of moving people forward, whether you’re a career changer or lifelong learner,” says Cortes, who emphasizes that people at different stages learn from each other. “Learning to research is the great equalizer. You come out being an expert on something.”