Momentum for Going SAT-Optional

More liberal arts colleges do away with test requirements; institutions that did so last year see big gains in numbers and diversity.
May 26, 2006

At Drew University this fall, 54 black freshmen are expected to enroll, up from 12 a year ago. At the College of the Holy Cross, applications for the class that will enroll in the fall were up 41 percent from a year ago. At Knox College, deposits for the freshman class that will enroll in the fall are up 35 percent.

These institutions -- in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois, respectively -- have something in common beyond an emphasis on the liberal arts. All have just completed their first cycle of admissions after ending requirements that all applicants had to submit SAT or ACT scores. Most of the applicants to these institutions still submitted scores. And the colleges can cite a variety of factors for their good fortunes. But these are the sorts of statistics that admissions deans (not to mention presidents and trustees) crave, and other colleges are taking note.

Just this week, Gustavus Adolphus College, in Minnesota, announced that it would make standardized tests optional for admissions. And George Mason University, in Virginia, announced that it would make tests optional for applicants with high grade point averages or class ranks in high school. Bennington, Chatham, and Lebanon Valley Colleges have all also recently dropped the requirement.

Indeed there are signs of an upswing in colleges -- especially liberal arts institutions -- that are ending SAT requirements. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing maintains a list of more than 700 colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT, but the list can give an incorrect impression. Most of the colleges on the list aren't very competitive (or in some cases competitive at all) in admissions, so they never required standardized testing. It's only a notable minority on the list that both once required testing and that are hard to get into.

But Robert A. Schaeffer of FairTest (as the center is known) said that he now counts 24 testing-optional institutions on the U.S. News list of the top 100 national liberal arts colleges. That's up 7 in about 18 months, and Schaeffer and others confirmed that several others on that list are seriously considering a shift. As the number of competitive institutions doing away with test requirements grows, and as the College Board continues to face criticism for its handling of scoring errors, the dynamic around the testing debate seems to be changing. 

Nothing prompts colleges to consider a shift like knowing that colleges like them have made the leap and benefited from it. Gustavus Adolphus, for example, focused its analysis on two colleges in the Midwest: Knox, which saw applications rise by 18 percent in the year, and Lawrence University, in Wisconsin, which saw an increase of 12 percent. Not only are the colleges that are shifting gears seeing immediate gains, but several colleges that made the shift a few years ago have conducted in-depth studies of the experience, and they report that the students admitted without standardized test scores are not only succeeding, but doing as well as students who submitted test scores.

No one expects the SAT to disappear. Movement to make testing optional has been much more limited among research universities than among liberal arts colleges. And even the SAT's toughest critics admit that the students who are applying to college today still have to take a test. A student applying to test-optional Mount Holyoke College may well also be applying to Wesleyan University, where scores must be submitted. But for the first time, people are starting to talk about whether liberal arts colleges may reach a critical mass such that students could skip the SAT or ACT completely and still apply to a wide range of highly respected institutions. Schaeffer said that he thinks such a moment is within sight and would likely happen when the number of top liberal arts colleges with testing-optional policies hits 40 or so.

And some educators are excited by that prospect. "I think it would be very good for students to feel that they have the option of not taking the test," said Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Mount Holyoke. "The amount of time and energy and money that we are spending on prepping for tests could be used in much more productive ways, ways that would actually prepare you for college."

Needless to say, the College Board looks at these issues very differently. While a few colleges are changing their policies, there is no national trend, according to Caren Scorpanos, a spokeswoman. And those that are ending testing requirements are making the wrong decision, she said. "To lose a national standard is a detriment to the process," she said. Grade inflation makes it impossible to compare students from different high schools, she added. "An A is not an A in every place."

Others, who are not affiliated with the College Board, also say that some colleges' motives in these changes are not entirely altruistic. Because SAT-optional colleges continue to accept scores from those who submit them (and because students who choose not to submit scores tend to score lower than their peers), most such institutions see their averages increase, which tends to help them in rankings. That, in turn, attracts more applicants. But these admissions experts say that these mixed rationales for making the shift only reinforce their belief that more and more colleges will drop the testing requirements.

A few competitive institutions -- most notably Bates College -- have been testing-optional for 20 years or more. And as a result, there is now more extensive data than ever before showing the impact of going that route. Bates has produced a series of studies showing that its applicant pool and student performance are both strong. Mount Holyoke, which dropped the SAT in 2001, is wrapping up one of the most extensive studies done of such a shift -- a research effort financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Brown, who is leading the study, said that "each year of data confirms the trend: We are able to make very good admissions decisions without the use of standardized tests." By all measures of academic performance, she said, high school grades and courses selected are sufficient to predict who will succeed and who won't. She noted that she is regularly being asked for updates on her study by other colleges considering following Mount Holyoke.

In March, Hamilton College announced that it had reviewed data from a five-year experiment with a testing-optional policy and decided to stick with it. About 40 percent of the students in each entering class at Hamilton (a larger percentage than at some other places) have opted not to submit SAT scores, and they fare slightly better academically at the college than the students who do submit the SAT.

Colleges that recently made the switch cite a variety of rationales and offer a range of experiences.

Robert Weisbuch had only just become president at Drew when the university stopped requiring the SAT. He had previously led the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, where he noticed a pattern with applicants for various fellowships -- or rather, he noticed the lack of a pattern. Students with very high GRE scores would submit "inert" scholarly proposals while some students with modest scores submitted proposals that were full of intellectual excitement and broke new ground. Weisbuch said that it became obvious that the creative talents he was trying to support were not correlated with standardized test scores.

Then there's the matter of philosophy and mission. "Liberal arts colleges and smaller universities make the claim that we treat people as individuals, but to the extent that their admissions policies ape large research universities, they aren't living up to that," he said. "This is who we are. Why don't we start at the very start of things -- when you apply."

In addition, he said he was bothered by all the pressure students feel over testing, in an era when students test and retest and pay for testing tutors, etc., etc. "Testing has become fetishized," he said.

Drew, like many colleges, is officially describing its shift as a pilot project that will be evaluated after three years. But so far, the results are positive. In addition to the stunning percentage increase in black freshmen, overall applications topped 4,500 -- up in one year from 3,800. Grade point averages were as strong as ever with the larger pool.

Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at Holy Cross, said officials there became more and more convinced that they weren't paying much attention to SAT scores anyway, so questioned why they were worth requiring -- especially given the way students were reacting to the test. "We were watching the growing hysteria over the new test. People were getting themselves up in a lather about the test, and not about the work day in and day out in the classroom that really prepares you," she said.

About 25 percent of applicants didn't submit SAT scores, and McDermott said that even with the 41 percent increase in applications, grades and applicant quality were up. Diversity also improved. This fall's freshmen class is projected to be 18 percent minority, up from 15 percent a year ago.

McDermott said that officials are very pleased with the switch, especially now that they have thought through some unexpected issues. For example, some high schools include SAT scores on student transcripts, and Holy Cross had to decide whether to look at such scores. The college decided not to -- unless there was some affirmative indication from students that they wanted the scores to be seen.

Owen Sammelson, the vice president at Gustavus in charge of enrollment management and admissions, said that there, too, officials thought about the messages that they were sending with a test requirement. "We really need to get back to more of an emphasis on achievement in high school," he said.

Some admissions experts say that dropping SAT requirements may be a less dramatic change than it appears. Michael London, the founder of College Coach, a national company that advises high school students on applying to college, said that "both applicants and colleges have information -- even when the scores aren't submitted."

London offered a hypothetical: For a given college, he knows that students who have a B+ average in honors courses in high school tend to get admitted, if their SAT score is around 1350 (using the old SAT scoring system). If an applicant's SAT score is significantly below 1350, he would suggest not sending the score in, but he'd send in scores in that range or higher. At the college, the admissions officer knows that the applicant's counselor knows all of this, and will assume that those not submitting scores have scores below the published averages. "You don't always need to submit scores for people to know what your scores are," London said.

Richard A. Hesel of Art & Science Group, which advises colleges on admissions and enrollment strategies, said he is currently evaluating the possible impact of dropping an SAT requirement for a client he couldn't name except to say that it was a top liberal arts college. Hesel said that he expected more colleges to make testing optional as they see the benefits of having more applicants and higher average SAT scores.

One institution -- Lafayette College -- went test-optional in the 1990s, only to resume a testing requirement. Barry McCarty, dean of enrollment services at Lafayette, said he too thinks that colleges are motivated by strategy more than anything else. "There are a lot of motivations here, and the one that the media is not very often addressing is the attractiveness of eliminating many of the lowest SAT performers in calculating the mean of a college's class," he said.

McCarty said that he didn't like the implication from many of those abandoning SAT requirements that places like Lafayette can't conduct sensitive reviews of applicants. He said that the college places more or less weight on the SAT score based on a variety of factors in a student's background and credentials. "I believe that we are looking at students holistically," he said.

While Lafayette has no plans to end its requirement, McCarty said that the college "was always reassessing," and just hadn't found the reasons to end a requirement "compelling."

How much does the SAT help? He said it helps "on the margin" and so is worth continuing to require. "But I think we all recognize that high school performance is the best predictor," he said.


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