Thursday, August 13, 2009

Test Optional - Why Some Colleges Have Decided to Look Beyond Standardized Tests

More colleges and universities each year are choosing to go test optional, meaning that they no longer require standardized tests in the college admission process. One college, Sarah Lawrence, has taken it a step further: the school will not even look at standardized test scores even if submitted by the student. Institutions adopt test optional for a variety of reasons. They typically cite a desire to improve overall diversity, as test score requirements are believed to discourage minority applications and favor those from more affluent communities. Additionally, experience has shown that standardized tests are a less reliable predictor of performance in college than transcripts and grades, and in fact add little additional significant information to the student’s profile beyond what the college has already gleaned about the individual from other parts of the application.

There are now more than 820 accredited four year institutions that have decided to forego standardized test requirements and the number has been increasing each year. While I am not a proponent of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, I do think it is noteworthy that 32 of its top ranked liberal arts colleges no longer require standardized tests in their application process. This includes schools such as Bowdoin, Bates, Smith and Colby.

So what does this mean for the college applicant? If the standardized test scores do not reflect an otherwise strong academic performance, a student might want to consider applying to a few test optional colleges. You will rarely hear that a college values high SATs over grades and rigor of the high school curriculum. In fact, the reverse is often the case. Many will question a student’s motivation and effort when high test scores are not matched by classroom performance. However, students should not choose the test optional approach just to get out of taking or submitting SAT or ACT scores and as a way to take a short cut in the application process. Many schools will require that a student submit a graded paper or write additional essays in lieu of test scores. The complete list of test optional institutions and their specific requirements can be found on the website

While the intentions of colleges and universities that have gone test optional are generally viewed positively, some critics are suspicious of the motives and believe that less altruistic objectives drive these policies. No one argues the equity and inclusion benefits, but skeptics question whether there is an unspoken agenda: are colleges also seeing this as a way to increase the number of applications, raise selectivity statistics and improve average test scores (which impacts rankings) by factoring in only submitted scores? But here is the real contradiction: many schools that have jettisoned standardized test requirements in the name of fairness, inclusion and limited reliability still use the scores as a primary factor in determining merit aid awards. How these colleges reconcile what appears to be conflicting policies is a hotly debated topic among admission officers.

The evolving role of standardized testing in college admission prompted the formation of the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission in late 2006. Its report to NACAC members at the annual conference in Seattle last fall made national news and basically concluded that one size does not fit all. Schools will continue to choose whatever evaluative tools best enable them to craft the desired class. No doubt this topic will receive more attention at NACAC's upcoming conference which I will be attending in Baltimore next month. Stay tuned to hear more in the future about how colleges select and justify their admission policies on standardized testing.

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