In March, the first group of American high school juniors will sit for a newly overhauled Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that features more time for fewer questions, among other changes. But even with a makeover, the test, administered by the College Board, may have lost some of its power to determine a student’s academic future. In the U.S., 850 colleges now allow students to apply without submitting a standardized test score, marking a belief among admissions directors that such measures as grade-point average, work experience, and course rigor can better predict college success.
Since 2004, 145 colleges have joined the ranks of schools that deem tests like the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT, optional for admission, including Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.; Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.; and George Washington University in D.C.
“The measure of a woman’s ambition and intelligence is so much more than a standardized test score,” Alecia DeCoudreaux, dean of Mills College, a small women’s college in San Francisco, wrote in a local newspaper explaining her school’s recent decision to stop requiring the test.
Admissions counselors can enroll a more diverse class if the test requirement is dropped, said George Washington spokeswoman Maralee Csellar. “It’s empowering for the staff to say, ‘This kid has done everything right, and there’s no reason not to admit him or her.’” In an effort to get to know student applicants beyond a score, Wake Forest dropped the test requirement and added mandatory interviews (via Skype, if necessary) to its admissions process. Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., asks for a teacher-graded paper, which the school feels gives a better sense of a student’s writing than an SAT or ACT essay.
Making it easier to apply expands a college's pool of prospective students. According to a University of Georgia study, colleges that drop the SAT and ACT requirement see applications double. There’s no way to measure, however, whether admissions counselors are just as likely to accept students without test scores as they are to accept applicants who do choose to submit them.
Just because some schools are making standardized testing optional doesn’t mean students won’t take the SAT or ACT. “Students are applying to upwards of 15 schools, and one of them is bound to require a test,” said Bob Schaeffer, a director at FairTest, an advocacy organization dedicated to preventing the misuse of standardized tests. And some schools, including Colorado College and Bryn Mawr College, are test-flexible, meaning that only students who earn a certain grade-point average can decide whether to submit a standardized test. Since students usually take college entrance exams in their junior year and apply to colleges during senior year, those looking to keep their options open will likely sign up for at least one exam.
The College Board redesigned the SAT in part to win back business from competitor ACT Inc., which administers the ACT, said Anathea Simpkins, product manager for Sylvan Learning’s College Prep Program. The new test makes the essay portion optional and includes reading passages with real-world relevance meant to reward issue-savvy students. “The test makers didn’t want the test to be such an anxiety-provoking, abstract event,” said Simpkins. “The aim was to make the SAT less intimidating and more consumer-friendly like the ACT.”
Despite the redesign, some, including FairTest’s Schaeffer, believe both exams are weak predictors of college performance and biased against major groups like women, minorities, and low-income students.
Of the schools looking to deflate the importance of standardized testing, only one of the 850 has eliminated the exams completely from its admissions process. Hampshire College, a small, experimental school in Amherst, Mass., decided not to accept test scores from any applicants.
For the rest of the U.S., so long as colleges leave the door cracked open for additional test scores (not to mention supplemental portfolios, writing samples, and letters of recommendation), the pressure on students, parents, and guidance counselors won’t abate. “College admissions has turned into a classic arms race,” said Schaeffer, and part of the reason the competition is so high is because—optional or not—a great test score is never going to work against you.