Not Missing the SAT

Mount Holyoke stopped requiring the test, and finds very little difference between those who submit scores and those who don't.
October 6, 2006

At a session Thursday on colleges with SAT-optional admissions policies, organizers let Inside Higher Ed pose a question to the audience, which was standing room only (and sitting in the aisle): How many of you are here because your college currently requires the SAT and you are thinking of ending the requirement?

Several dozen of those at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling shot up their hands -- to applause from others in the room. A high school counselor then suggested another question: How many of you who are guidance counselors would like to see more colleges abandon the SAT? More hands and more applause.

To many of those at the meeting in Pittsburgh, in fact, the question isn't so much about the value of the SAT, but how to get along without it. The questions for panelists didn't challenge the decisions to end requirements, but focused on issues one would face when undergoing a switch away from an SAT requirement, or how to deal with skeptics. And the admissions deans who had already undergone the switch said without exception that it had been a positive one. They reported that they had used the shift to rethink admissions more broadly, to attract more and more-diverse students, and to engage faculty members in the process.

Wylie L. Mitchell, dean of admissions at Bates College -- one of the early competitive colleges to abandon the SAT as a requirement -- told the audience that the shift there arose from a group of educators "scratching our heads" to wonder what characteristics were associated with success at the college. Bates found that when it looked at those with the highest averages when they graduated from the college, there was no relationship to whether those students had high or low SAT scores on the way in.

In the years since, Bates has continued to study the data -- collecting SAT scores on students who are admitted, so that the college can analyze trends involving those who do and do not submit scores for admissions reviews. Students who don't submit scores tend to have math and verbal combined SAT scores that are 140 to 160 points below the average for those who do submit. But Mitchell said that the difference in the two groups' grade-point average while at Bates is 0.05 -- hardly anything at all.

The movement away from the SAT has been growing this year, particularly among liberal arts colleges. On Thursday, Mitchell College, in Connecticut, became the latest institution to abandon the SAT as a requirement. ( Hundreds of colleges nationwide don't require the SAT, but many of these are institutions without competitive admissions.)

Speakers at the NACAC meeting stressed that ending the SAT as a requirement motivated them to think of new and better ways to evaluate students. Lewis & Clark College, since 1990, has given students the option of skipping the SAT if they pursue a "Portfolio Path," and submit four samples of graded work from their junior and senior years in high school. While copies may be submitted, they must be the actual work -- with teacher comments visible.

Not many students select this path -- only about 7.5 percent in recent years, according to Mike Sexton, dean of admissions. But the students who submit portfolios tend to be "more motivated," and that's a great quality to have, he said.

Franklin & Marshall College uses a similar approach, and has found other benefits. Penny Johnston, associate dean of admission at the college, said that reading actual graded papers that students submit is a great way for the admissions team to really learn about the standards of various high schools -- something she said was essential for admissions officers.

Until this year, Franklin & Marshall offered the option of replacing SAT scores with graded work only to those in the top 10 percent of their high school classes (or a 3.6 GPA for those whose classes do not rank). The academic performance of students admitted this way has been so strong that this year the college is removing that "rigid barrier" and opening the option up to all applicants.

Conventional wisdom has it that students who don't submit SAT scores have scores that are lower than the averages reported by a college. But Johnston said that's not always the case. She said that many of her college's applicants decide to ask that their scores not be considered after already submitting them. In these cases, the college sets the scores aside, but does look at them later for research purposes.

She said that more and more of these students opting not to have SAT scores considered have "really good" scores, as in the 1500 range. "They are telling us that they wanted to be evaluated on their own merit and not on some test," she said.

After the session, several of the admissions officials in the audience -- all of them asking not to be identified as their institutions have not gone public with their consideration of dropping the SAT -- said that they were impressed with the experiences of the colleges on the panel. Several said that they were particularly attracted to the model of replacing the SAT with graded high school work, seeing that as something that would link the admissions process more closely to educational values.

The admissions dean of one Western university that currently requires the SAT said that he had been studying the data at his institution, and believed that high school grades would be better at predicting college success than the SAT. The dean said that he found the arguments persuasive, but needed to pay attention to campus politics.

"We've got the data, but I don't want to get out front of my faculty. I'm trying to build faculty support now," he said.

One of the panelists, Matthew Mergen of Drew University, said that ending the SAT requirement there had led to much more interest by professors in the admissions process. "It really energized the faculty," he said, to think about issues of "how do we define quality."

Not everyone who attended the session was ready to go SAT-optional. Vince Cuseo, dean of admission at Occidental College, said he sees the test -- used properly -- as a good way to deal with rampant grade inflation and "the wide variety" of standards in high schools. Occidental applicants attend urban public high schools and elite prep schools, he said, and the SAT helps admissions officers evaluate grades from very different kinds of institutions.

At the same time, he said he thought it was "incumbent" on colleges to be sure that they regularly test the value of the SAT to their admissions processes, to make sure that the "value added" is real.

Brian O'Reilly, the College Board's executive director of SAT information services, is at the NACAC meeting, but didn't attend the session on going SAT-optional. In an interview in the meeting's exhibit hall, he said that the SAT was "highly predictive" of success in college. He also said that many of the colleges that "want to say that they are student-friendly" by dropping the SAT still look at scores for the majority of applicants who submit them and must "find them useful."

Asked why he didn't attend the session, O'Reilly said that he'd heard "the bashing" before -- and added that colleges were entitled to do what they wanted. "Obviously every college has the right to establish its own admissions criteria," he said.


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