Test Optional List Soars Past 750, Nears "Critical Mass"

University Testing

FairTest Examiner - October 2007

As the college admissions season gets underway for the high school class of 2008, a new FairTest tally finds that more than 755 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions do not require all or most of their applicants to submit scores from either the SAT or the ACT.

Since a "new" SAT was introduced in March 2005 and the ACT exam added an optional "writing" section, more than thirty schools have eliminated admissions exam requirements. This summer and early fall, four more schools - Goucher, Merrimack, Christopher Newport, and Wittenberg, joined the list. In addition, more academic experts, including some unexpected allies, have endorsed test-optional admissions.

The failure of recent SAT and ACT revisions to address the tests' historic problems has accelerated the pace. Admissions officers know from their own studies that test results still reflect race, gender, language and income biases. Research shows they are weak predictors of college academic performance. They also remain highly susceptible to coaching. Relying on test scores to evaluate applicants undermines both equity and educational quality (see FairTest report Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit .

New test-optional policies

Goucher College, one of the nation's top liberal arts schools, has launched a three-year experiment allowing all prospective students to choose whether their test scores will be considered in the admissions process. Director of Admissions Corky Surbeck explained the change will better align application reviews with the institution's educational philosophy. "There is a question as to whether a score is an accurate predictor, and Goucher does not believe a test is what indicates a person's level of intellect," Surbeck said. She added that the proliferation of high-priced ACT and SAT coaching courses ends up "giving some students an unfair advantage over others."

Merrimack College's decision to drop admissions exam requirements was based on internal research demonstrating that the addition of test scores added little prediction value to what was already known from applicants' high school grades and course-taking patterns. "The SAT optional program gives consistently capable and productive students the ability to access a college education without the pressure of one test's results dictating their future," declared Jorge Hernandez, director of freshman admission at the North Andover, Massachusetts, school. "If the applicant is a proven hard worker and a well rounded student, Merrimack wants to identify that on a variety of planes. We know they have a lot to offer our community," he concluded.

At Christopher Newport University (CNU), a publicly funded institution in Newport News, Virginia, ACT/SAT scores will be optional for prospective students with a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.5 or who rank in the upper 10 percent of their high school class. The policy is similar to one implemented last year at George Mason, another large state-run campus (see Examiner, May 2006). The policy change was prompted by concerns that too many students with outstanding academic records were being rejected for admission because of low test scores, according to Dean of Admissions Patty Cavender. Christopher Newport President Paul Tribble added, "Our research . . . has shown that high school GPAs are a much better indicator of how well students will do academically at CNU than SAT scores."

The new policy adopted at Wittenberg College, located in Springfield, Ohio, reflects the selective school's desire to attract more top students from around the nation. "A true liberal arts education requires engagement from a wide range of viewpoints and experiences," said Wittenberg President Mark Erickson. "By allowing students to choose whether they wish to send us their ACT or SAT scores, we are confident that more students from all backgrounds will consider Wittenberg for college. They will see a school committed to knowing and educating the whole person, rather than one that evaluates ability based on standardized test." Submission of test scores will not be required either for admission or to receive merit-based academic scholarships.

College Admissions Counselors Applaud Test Optional

The growing movement away from entrance exam requirements was particularly visible at this year's National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) annual conference in Austin. Reporters who covered the 5,500 person event filed stories with headlines such as "Frustrations with Standardized Testing Boil at Annual Admissions Conference" and "College- Admissions Group Weighs Calls to Dump SAT." Keynote speaker Chauncey Veatch, a former National Teacher of the Year, generated loud applause by noting "Achievement is not just success on standardized tests." Dozens of schools staffing booths at an accompanying college fair promoted their test-optional policies.

A special NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions has begun a year-long examination of the role exams such as the ACT and SAT should play. The Commission plans to examine test score misuse, the effects of coaching, bias, and test-taker rights among other issues. FairTest has been invited to submit materials for Commission consideration.

Strange Bedfellows

Academic experts coming from widely divergent philosophies have also called for downplaying the role of standardized tests in the admission process. Writing in the August 2007 issue of American Sociological Review, Princeton University professor Marta Tienda, a supporter of affirmative action, and Tel Aviv University professor Sigal Alon found that, "The seemingly inevitable tension between merit and diversity exists only when merit is narrowly defined by SAT scores." Using data collected under the University of Texas' top ten percent plan, which automatically admits high school students posting the highest grades in their local schools without regard to test scores, Alon and Tienda concluded that "defining merit using performance-based criteria, rather than test scores, is more compatible with institutional diversity." At the same time, "ignoring SAT scores does not have deleterious consequences for timely graduation likelihood. "Diversity, Opportunity and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education" is available at http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/Aug07ASRFeature.pdf.

Meanwhile, Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, which argues that intelligence is genetically based and well-measured by standardized tests, is now calling for the elimination of the SAT. In an article in the conservative American Enterprise Institute's magazine, The American, Murray argues that the SAT has become "a negative force in American life." His manifesto, "Abolish the SAT" cites concerns about coaching and impacts on students from historically excluded minority groups to conclude "nothing important would be lost by dropping the SAT." Murray relies heavily on University of California studies showing that high school grades and SAT Subject Test scores are more powerful predictors than the main SAT verbal and mathematics exams. (http://www.american.com/archive/2007/july-august-magazine-contents/aboli...)

Approaching "Critical Mass"

The rising chorus of criticism guarantees that more schools will reevaluate their admissions testing requirements. The movement is nearing "critical mass." Each college that drops its entrance exams stimulates several more to reexamine their requirements. At least two dozen additional colleges are already in the test-optional pipeline.

FairTest directory of test score optional schools is regularly updated to reflect the most recent policy changes. It remains available without charge in both alphabetical and state-by-state order. Nearly 200,000 students, parents, and guidance counselors now take advantage of these lists each year.