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After You Go SAT-Optional

September 25, 2008

A new report this week by the National Association for College Admission Counseling urges colleges to more carefully consider whether they need to require standardized testing for admission. And the report suggests that a careful analysis should lead many institutions to go test-optional.

Colleges that have been test-optional for some time report success -- more applications over all, more applications from members of minority groups, and no drops in applicant quality or student success. But with the NACAC report creating new momentum for the test-optional movement, one question that arises is, what is involved when a college makes the decision to make this shift? The question is especially important for larger institutions, since many of the colleges with the most experience being test-optional are small liberal arts colleges that already had highly personalized admissions processes.

Currently, Wake Forest University is undergoing such a change -- having announced this summer that it would no longer require a test for admission. Wake Forest is among the largest competitive colleges to make the move -- and officials there report that there’s more to dropping the SAT than just dropping the SAT. The university is revamping its admissions process generally, putting much more emphasis on personal interviews and adding staff for what will be a more intense review of candidates. In addition, the university has been paying close attention to how people inside and outside the university understand its move.

Jill Tiefenthaler, provost at Wake Forest, said a move away from testing is a chance to reframe the discussion about how people are admitted to colleges. “You have to make it very clear to people that this is not about sacrificing academic excellence," she said. “I think for such a long time people have seen the SAT as some kind of gold standard in intelligence, which it isn’t and was never intended to be. We need to remind people that it’s one test on one day for a lot of students.”

On campus, Wake Forest administrators have generally had faculty support, in part because they worked closely with professors on the shift. Joseph A. Soares, a Wake Forest sociologist who has done extensive work on issues related to social class and higher education, has written extensively -- and critically -- of the SAT. The author of The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (2007, Stanford University Press), Soares created a Web page for faculty members with an outline of the issue, a bibliography and resources about the SAT and standardized testing.

The only vocal opposition to the change has come from some alumni. While the alumni affairs office reports that about 75 percent of alumni who have communicated with the university about the change have praised the decision, 25 percent have been critical. Generally, those worried about the move have expressed a fear about rankings or a belief that the decision amounts to coddling applicants. A member of the Class of ’89 posted this comment on an alumni message board: “Give me a break, Wake. The news of this SAT/ACT policy change makes me embarrassed and horrified that my beloved institution has succombed [sic] to the pressures of the all-accommodating world of academia. The pride, which has always swelled in my heart for WFU, has diminished some today.”

Tiefenthaler said that she’s not surprised that some alumni are more hesitant to embrace the change. Sharing the philosophy behind the move is “easier on campus than off,” she said, and so the process will take a little longer. But she said that she believes Wake will soon have evidence – through more applications, data on the success of students admitted without tests, and so forth, that will reassure critics. “I think it’s an image thing, a question of people wanting to be sure of quality,” she said. “It’s not that anybody loves the SAT.”

In addition, she noted that while she’s not a fan of rankings, Wake is rising (up 2 spots in U.S. News & World Report this fall), and that while she doesn’t consider that a true measure of the university, and this year’s doesn’t reflect the new testing policy, the progress seems important to those who worry about losing the test. She also said that the publicity about the NACAC report is helping, as now people are calling the university to say that they are impressed that “we are ahead on this.”

Digging Deeper

One of the messages Tiefenthaler wants to get out is that applicants are probably receiving more scrutiny, not less, without the SAT.

Martha Allman, director of admissions, said that while the publicity about Wake Forest is on dropping the SAT as a requirement, an equally important change is a decision to encourage just about every applicant to have a personal interview -- through video if necessary for those unable to visit the campus.

Previously, the university interviewed between 10 and 20 percent of applicants, and now it is moving to get “as close to 100 percent as possible.” The interviews are providing a much more detailed sense of students, their strengths, and their likely success at the university, she said. “We're trying to get at their motivation and curiosity,” factors a test score can’t reveal, Allman said.

Last year, Wake received 9,000 applications, and most colleges that drop an SAT requirement experience significant increases in their numbers. With the added time needed for interviews, and the idea of spending more time with each application, Wake added 2 more people to the admissions staff (bringing the number who will be involved in reading applications to 13). In addition, Wake may involve faculty members or retired admissions officers in interviews.

Admissions officers are also already asking more questions than they used to of high school counselors, Allman said. Looking at high school records, Wake admissions officers are trying to get a better sense of what a given high school rank means, or the rigor of a curriculum.

One of the biggest issues the staff has been discussing, she said, is how to use the SAT scores of those students who submit them and what to tell the many potential applicants who ask whether they should. (Many colleges that drop an SAT requirement report that most students continue to submit scores.)

Allman said that the policy the university has adopted is that, for students who do submit scores, “it’s not going to factor in significantly in our reading.” When high school students ask, they are being told that Wake Forest was sincere in saying that it didn’t need or want the scores.

There may be cases where individual applicants feel a particular need to submit, Allman said. If, for example, a student who attends a high school with “a weak curriculum,” and who was unable to take the kinds of college-prep courses Wake prefers, asked whether to submit scores, Allman said her reply would be “if you feel the score is a good representation, then go ahead and submit. If you don’t, don’t.”

While it’s very early in the admissions cycle, Wake applications are up already, as have been campus visits over this point last year. Allman said that while she doesn’t have data, she has noticed many more minority visitors to the campus. Generally, colleges that have dropped the SAT as a requirement have seen a surge in applications from minority applicants -- and Wake has mentioned that as one goal for the change.

Allman said that she’s also hearing from potential applicants with high SAT scores who say they like the idea of applying somewhere that they don’t have to submit them. High school students have been telling her that they still take the SAT because they are applying to some colleges that require it but see appeal in not being evaluated based on that number.

The biggest challenge so far with the change, Allman said, is uncertainty. While Wake expects applications to go up, she said that there really is no way to know the magnitude. Combining an increase with the time factor for reviewing applications, she said there are “real unknowns” about what it will be like at the peak of the season for reviewing applications.

“But we think it’s the right thing to do -- the fair thing to do,” she said. “Do we think we can do it all without a test? We certainly think we can.”

If the process is a little harder on the admissions staff, that’s OK with Tiefenthaler, the provost. She said that one of the things that bothered her the most about requiring the SAT was that it could be “an easy crutch” for making tough decisions. In talking to admissions officers at many institutions, she said, it’s clear that with the SAT, if there are two applicants who are generally similar and “one has a 1320 and one has a 1350, you could just go with the 1350.”

The person with the 1350 may or may not be the best candidate, she said, and she likes the idea that more questions will be asked before deciding who gets the slot -- even if that takes extra hours and some extra people. “Now we have to dig deeper.”

 

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