ACT, SAT, GPA, class rank, essays or various other entrance exams, what is the best way to determine a student’s probability of success? There is a fair amount of debate on this subject as more colleges are choosing to forgo the traditional ACT or SAT scores in favor of a closer examination the student’s overall high school performance. Proponents of test-optional college admissions argue that reliance on standardizing testing weakens diversity and first-generation student applicants. Whereas opponents believe that the ACT and SAT do not impact diversity — it is simply an unbiased predictor of college outcome.
To date, more than 950 accredited higher education institutions have adopted the test-optional idea in a variety of ways, some to greater extents than others. One school will allow students who meet an established GPA or class rank requirement to be exempt from taking the test, another school might use ACT/SAT scores for placement purposes rather than admissions. Other more test-flexible schools will rely on essays or have a larger variety of other test scores that are accepted. Test-optional institutions appear to be customizing how their admissions will work to best suit their needs.
Research conducted on both sides of the testing argument predictably supports the viewpoint of those who share the results, which leads to a lot of conflicting numbers and interpretations. There are variables on both sides. Where some point out the standardized tests aren’t fair for everyone and several factors derail a student's efforts, others can point to variations in high school curriculum, inflated grades and different district requirements.
Proponents believe not requiring standardized admission tests will increase diversity by being more inclusive of minorities, low-income, first-generation and female students. They claim high tests scores skew in favor of those who can afford to take the tests multiple times and those whose parents pay for additional test preparation. The tests also exclude students who might excel in a single subject.
Proponents assert that by allowing admissions to focus on a student’s overall high school grades and achievements, a school will have a better idea of how the student will perform throughout their college career.
Schools such as Emerson College, George Washington University and Sarah Lawrence are among those listed as test-optional institutions. George Washington University caused a splash when they changed their admissions standards in 2015, hoping to increase low-income and minority applicants. The school’s task force, which was formed to weigh the pros and cons of going test-optional, concluded that high-achieving students who simply don't test well didn’t apply to their school. To counter this trend, they adopted the new admissions philosophy with only a few exceptions — pre-med students, home-schooled students and athletes are still required to submit test scores.
William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine, conducted a study looking at data from a variety of test-optional schools of varying sizes over several years. His conclusion was that high school grades were the best predictor of college success. Students with low test scores, but high grades, did better in college than those with high test scores and low grades. He found no significant difference in graduation rates or cumulative G.P.A.
Standardized test proponents
The College Board and ACT released statements calling into question the claim that test-optional schools enhance diversity in participating schools. Citing research conducted by University of Georgia and College Transitions LLC that states while there are anecdotal accounts of increased diversity, there is not empirical proof of it. They said that while there may be more diversity in applicants, admissions remain the same.
The College Board and ACT state that their individual test is not only a reliable predictor of a student’s GPA but also of their retention and completion. Both groups conclude that their test is the most objective and democratic form of analysis, but colleges shouldn’t use a single factor to determine admission. They say the best method is to consider an array of collected data, taking into account high school grades and ACT or SAT scores.
Where does that leave the students with high GPAs and low test scores, the nervous test-takers or the students who excel in one or two subjects but not across the board? Exactly where they started — unlikely to apply to schools who place heavy emphasis on standardized tests.
This question isn’t only on the mind of college administrators. Recently, parents have rallied around a proposed bill in Illinois to give them the option to remove the SAT score — all high school juniors in Illinois take the free, state sponsored SAT exam — from their child’s transcripts. Parents believe one test shouldn’t end their child’s chance of getting into the school of their choice.
How the role of standardized testing will change, if at all, remains to be seen. If traditional admission standards skew toward particular demographics, the suggestion that no change is the best will remain unsatisfactory to many who are concerned with the issue. As the number of entering freshman dwindles, more applicants may start looking better to many schools and the number of test-optional schools could increase. Or, perhaps, another solution will be found.