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More Colleges Give Applicants a Choice on Using Test Scores

The SAT or ACT are not the only high school rites of passage, but they’re arguably the most tense. Teenagers are taught that if they want to attend a competitive college, then they must succeed on one of these tests. But in the past few years, a growing number of colleges have been dropping that requirement, giving applicants the choice about whether to send institutions their SAT or ACT scores. A high score is no longer a must to get into a good school.

A Kaplan Test Prep location in midtown west Manhattan. The ability to afford SAT prep courses is one reason the test is unfair to low-income students. (Cristabelle Tumola / School Stories)

Most of the schools that have gone this route are smaller, liberal art institutions. They have traditionally taken a holistic approach to the admissions process, and believe that the SAT does not necessarily predict success in college. These institutions see test-optional admissions as a way to increase diversity, and believe that the policy opens up the process to groups that tend to score lower, such as low-income and minority students.

Two of the first schools to go test optional were Bowdoin in 1969, and another small liberal arts college in the Northeast, Bates, in the fall of 1984.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Opened Testing, an organizationtopposed to misuse of standardized testing, said that by the late 1990s, about half a dozen schools were switching each year, but the movement really picked up after the SAT was revised in 2005.

The revision came after University of California President Richard C. Atkinson proposed that the SAT be dropped as an admissions requirement. He thought the test wasn’t a good measure of what students studied in high school, and forgoing it would lead to more diversity.

In response, the College Board, which administers the test, added a writing section. But many schools did not think this change addressed Atkinson’s complaints. A 2008 validity study by the College Board on the new SAT’s ability to predict freshman grade-point average found that the revised exam “did not substantially change how well the test predicts first-year college performance.”

That issue helped lead to more colleges going test optional, and now about a dozen a year are doing so, said Schaeffer.

Clark University, a small research university in Massachusetts, will go test optional starting with this fall’s applicants. One reason was to increase diversity, said Clark’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Donald Honeman.

He talked to other test-optional schools before making the switch and found that in almost all cases, the total number of applications increased dramatically along with enrollment of students of color.

Administrators at test-optional schools say the policy encourages students who might not have applied before, which can lead to greater diversity. When students look at the average SAT scores of those the school admitted, they may think that because their scores are lower, they are not going to be competitive. That barrier falls away when a school drops the test requirement.

Honeman believes the test is unfair to students who do well in high school and college but don’t have the financial resources to take test prep courses or retake the tests to get higher scores.

According to the College Board’s 2011 College-Bound Seniors Total Group Profile Report, whites outscored African-Americans by about 100 points in all three sections — critical reading, math and writing. It also showed a correlation between average family income and score — the higher the income, the higher the score in each section.

Smith’s dean of admission, Debra Shaver, said the college’s decision to go test optional in the fall of 2009 has led to greater racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity. “It came at a time of increasing national concern about the role of standardized tests in our educational system, as well as the strong and widely demonstrated correlations between race and household income and test performance,” she said.

Bates did the most extensive study on the effects of a test-optional policy, which it has had in place for more than 20 years. The school analyzed the college performance of about 7,000 students, including those who had submitted scores and those who had not.

The study found that Bates has increased its enrollment of women, students of color, international students, low-income or blue-collar students, rural students, students with learning disabilities and students with rated talents in athletics, the arts or debate.

But even with the growing popularity of test-optional policies, the SAT is still a powerful sorter of applicants at the vast majority of schools. Kathleen Steinberg, the College Board’s executive director of communications, said the number of students taking the exam is increasing every year, and the percentage of low-income and minority students has also gone up exponentially in the last decade.

Most schools still require the test. That’s especially true for schools that attract many thousands of applicants. The test is a quick way to evaluate students without having to hire additional staff in a time of budget cuts.

But the growing number of test-optional schools has had an influence on the debate over the value of standardized tests in admissions. FairTest keeps an updated list of over 800 test-optional schools on its website. The list includes “test flexible” institutions that allow students to submit other tests scores, such as SAT II subject test or AP exams, instead of the SAT or ACT.

Although the SAT is supposed to predict academic success in the freshman year of college, administrators at test-optional schools, like Smith’s Shaver, say that the rigor of high school courses and the grades are better indicators. ”We’re less interested in good test takers than we are in smart, engaged, interesting minds,” Shaver said.

But the College Board stands behind the validity of the SAT and says that it’s an important national benchmark. “When admitting candidates, it’s important to have a benchmark that neutralizes some of the fluctuations in grading practices that exists around the country or within a school,” said Steinberg.

She adds that the College Board has always stated that schools need to use the SAT in combination with other factors, such as grades, recommendations and rigor of student’s coursework.

While the number of schools going test optional is increasing, not all of those who have made this decision are pleased with the results. Lafayette College went test optional for five admission cycles, from 1995 to 1999, and then made tests a requirement again.  “We weren’t getting huge numbers of highly motivated, strong students who were opting to not submit their scores, but rather it was mediocre students with mediocre scores,” said Carol Rowlands, the school’s associate dean of admissions and financial aid.

Also, she says, some faculty members and alumni felt strongly that the test-optional policy might have hurt the school’s reputation. They believed that if the school didn’t require the SAT or ACT then it might not seem as selective.

Schools that have gone test optional in recent years are less concerned about reputation because of the number of top institutions that have the policy. The U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges 2012” guide, ranked 53 of its first-tier national liberal arts colleges and 35 of its top 100 as test optional or test flexible.

Fifteen years ago, the test-optional movement didn’t have today’s momentum. “Back then there weren’t that many colleges that were SAT optional, and so it was a risk,” Rowlands said.

Lafayette isn’t currently considering going SAT optional again, but the school is encouraging more students to have admissions interviews to make the process more holistic.

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