One day last year, Kristin Tichenor came across an article from a local paper about a high school student who had won all the science honors in her school and was going to enroll at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where Tichenor is associate vice president for enrollment management.
That's normally the kind of clipping that someone in admissions would love -- great free publicity. But a quote caught Tichenor's eye. The accepted student said "I"m really excited to be going to WPI -- my guidance counselors told me I'd never get in because of my test scores." Tichenor was curious and looked up her test scores, which in fact were "squarely" in the middle range of those accepted to the institute.
To Tichenor, it reinforced the way "people misperceive that test scores drive the admissions process" and don't even know what test scores are considered acceptable. This fall, WPI will no longer require the SAT -- joining a movement of 700-plus colleges that has been growing in recent years. That trend has been most evident among liberal arts colleges. WPI will become the first competitive science and engineering focused institution to make the leap -- which is being hailed by critics of the SAT.
"The significance of the WPI announcement is that even a school with a heavy emphasis on quantitative skills -- arguably among those best measured by the ACT/SAT -- can do high-quality, competitive admissions without requiring test scores," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. He called the announcement "a strong rebuttal to those who
suggest test-optional policies only can work at small, liberal arts colleges."
Like most of the colleges that have dropped SAT requirements, WPI will still accept the scores, and Tichenor predicted that most applicants would continue to submit them. Those who wish not to will take what the institute is calling its "Flex Path" in admissions. They will be required to submit examples of academic or extracurricular work that shows their skills in organization, creativity or problem solving. Examples include written descriptions of science projects, robotics design concepts, research papers, Eagle Scout projects, entrepreneurial projects, or actual inventions.
Applications have been increasing at WPI, which this year had just under 5,700 applications for a class of about 800, admitting around 3,700. Students average class rank is the 11th percentile, and the SAT average (excluding writing) is 1290 (678 on mathematics). While WPI has been pleased with enrollment growth, it has wanted more diversity in its classes. About 25 percent of students are women, and the numbers for black and Latino students are low (49 combined in this year's freshman class of 777).
Tichenor said that in discussions, admissions officers have been asking "who isn't here?" and what WPI could do to attract those groups. At the same time, she said, her office was studying the students who are most successful at WPI, and finding little correlation to SAT scores. Meanwhile, some students with very high SAT scores were floundering. The conclusion the admissions team came to was that high school grades in strong math and science courses in high school were the key factor, not test scores. (The change will be in place for at least five years, while WPI will study the success rates of those who do and do not submit SAT scores.)
"Obviously we want to make sure that the students we admit are successful, but all of our internal studies have found the the SAT is not the best barometer," Tichenor said.
She added that she hoped the policy shift would attract more female and minority applicants -- as has been the case at other institutions that have dropped testing requirements.
Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said that the group respects the right of colleges to decide whether or not to require the SAT, and that WPI's move was "not being viewed with alarm."
But Scoropanos said that the College Board believes that SAT scores "rounded out by grades" are the best way to predict college success. She said that grades are subjective and so the SAT allows colleges to see where students fit. With the SAT, she said, "colleges and universities are losing an important national measure."