As College Board graders work through the first batch of tests completed by students taking the redesigned SAT, the higher education sector continues a shift toward test-optional admissions.
Since The College Board announced its new SAT, which debuted in March, about 60 colleges have adopted admissions policies that do not require students to submit SAT or ACT test scores. More schools became test-optional in 2015 than any other year, and according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, 2014 claims the second-place record.
That’s the clearest evidence FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer can see when it comes to the usefulness of standardized admissions tests.
“Schools are voting with their policies that the SAT — old or new — or the ACT are not needed,” Schaeffer said.
FairTest has long argued for test-optional admissions because research shows both the SAT and ACT are relatively weak predictors of undergraduate success, they are highly susceptible to test prep that gives students who can afford such services an advantage, and they are biased against women, non-native English speakers, and older students.
Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, says the testing companies are straightforward about the limitations of their exams. While he has developed test-optional policies at two universities — Brandeis and George Mason — Flagel would not call himself a national advocate of test-optional or score-flexible policies.
For Flagel, the key is that colleges be transparent about their admissions practices. At Brandeis, students can choose to apply without submitting an SAT or ACT score. If they go this route, they can submit a graded paper and an additional letter of recommendation or submit alternative standardized test scores documenting their performance in math, English Language Arts, and one additional subject.
The program has been in a pilot phase for two years now, during which time about 10% of applicants have taken advantage of the alternate admissions option. Among those students, 85% apply with a graded paper and additional recommendation rather than the alternative standardized tests. While their applications require a bit more reading than their peers’, Flagel said the logistics of admissions are not much different.
“Because, like most competitive universities, we do a deep dive into every application, the standardized test score does not save a considerable amount of time for us,” Flagel said.
The main benefit of going test-optional, for Flagel, is the clarity it provides to students about the admissions process. Data about Brandeis student performance showed that standardized test scores were only weak indicators of how well students would do in college. Admissions officers have long known that was the case, and allocated weight to the SAT and ACT in the admissions process accordingly. But Flagel said the official policy makes it clearer to students that there is a holistic admissions policy in place.
“Holistic” is a common descriptor of the admissions process when schools describe a shift to test-optional.
At Elmira College in New York State, administrators hoped to attract greater numbers of academically capable students by de-emphasizing standardized tests. In a press release about the policy change, Christopher Coons, vice president of enrollment management, said going test-optional would allow the admissions office to “truly implement a holistic admissions approach and focus on each applicant’s academic performance throughout secondary school….”
Trinity College, which shifted to test-optional in the Fall of 2015, also highlighted the “holistic approach,” emphasizing a highly personalized process and also reminding students they can submit SAT or ACT scores if they feel they represent their academic potential.
Even FairTest isn’t advocating getting rid of the SAT and ACT altogether. Schaeffer said students who want to apply with these scores should be able to. But he has seen a spike in schools, especially public institutions, shifting to test-optional in recent years, and he expects successful transitions at these schools will encourage peer institutions to follow suit.
How far the trend will go, and for how long, remains to be seen.
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