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SAT-optional Will Trend Take Off or Sputter?


If you’re one of those students afraid standardized test scores don’t paint the full picture of your potential, your options are growing. More and more colleges don’t require the SAT or ACT exams.

Wake Forest and Smith just admitted their first class of applicants who could decline to submit SAT or ACT scores, while Sewanee and Fairfield will do the same next year.

But is the “test optional” movement gaining steam, or running out of it?

That was a big question hanging over a college admissions conference hosted by Wake Forest this past week. The answer could come in the next few weeks as colleges set their policies for next year’s admissions cycle.

So far, several hundred colleges have gone test-optional for at least some students, including a small but growing number of more selective liberal arts schools.

“I don’t know if you can tell a tipping point until after it’s happened, but it’s very close,” said Bob Schaeffer, the gadfly testing critic who heads the group FairTest. He said he’s heard from at least a dozen very selective institutions reviewing their admissions policies and expects more to drop testing requirements this spring.

But the vast majority of colleges still use standardized tests in admissions. The College Board, which owns the SAT, says only 45 schools are truly test-optional for all.

And the test-optional movement’s “big fish” is still out there. If an elite college with the name recognition of a Harvard or Yale dropped testing requirements, it could be a game-changer.

Launched in 1926, the SAT was devised as a merit-based leveler to replace the old-boys pipeline from prep schools to top colleges. The idea was to let students show their natural ability even if they didn’t come from the best schools.

But many now view the SAT as the opposite as an obstacle to opportunity. They point to scoring gaps between different racial and socio-economic groups, and concerns that the test is too coachable.

There’s also a complex, long-running debate over just how well the exam (and its nearly equally popular cousin, the ACT) actually does what it promises: predict college success. Clearly, the SAT helps. But does it provide good enough guidance to justify the stress it causes students? More colleges are answering “no.”

Some critics think test-optional is just a ploy for colleges to attract more minority students without having to report their on-average lower test scores to the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

But Provost Jill Tiefenthaler said Wake Forest went SAT-optional (along with other changes like interviewing more applicants) to send a signal it really wants a broader range of students. And it worked: Applications this year rose 16 percent, up 70 percent for Blacks.

The new policy irked some Wake Forest alumni, who said the school was putting diversity ahead of standards. But Tiefenthaler said more diversity is essential for building an educational community.

“You’ve got to have different people from different backgrounds with different talents,” she said. “The kind of students we want here are sometimes going to be great test-takers and sometimes not.”

Wake Forest will re-examine the decision in five years. After a similar experiment in the 1990s, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania went back to requiring SAT scores. The change hadn’t attracted the applicants it hoped for, and it concluded it needed SAT scores after all to predict student success.

The not-for-profit College Board said in an e-mailed statement the SAT has been validated in hundreds of studies and remains important because high school grade inflation makes it hard to compare students. The statement noted the organization has always advised colleges to use SAT scores in combination with other factors, especially grades.

Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling encouraged colleges to consider dropping tests like the SAT in favor of others more closely tied to students’ high school coursework.

But the report didn’t go so far as to tell colleges not to use the SAT.

Test scores “play a role in our process, and in some parts of our process I would have a hard time seeing what would be the replacement,” said Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale’s dean of admissions. Still, he said Yale constantly reviews how it uses tests.

Some critics doubt SAT scores often help disadvantaged students as intended by revealing otherwise hidden potential, or persuading Yale to admit a riskier student without fear he or she will fail.

But Brenzel says that happens all the time.

It happens “when you lack other information about a student that’s reliable, where the teachers tend to write very short and unhelpful recommendations, where the course curriculum is suspect,” Brenzel said.

“The test is one of the few things where you might be able to identify a diamond in the rough,” he said. “And we take kids like that every year.”

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