Changing the standard: Colleges accept applicants without SAT scores

Pictured above is the Mary-Graydon Building of American University. AU is one of 850 test-optional institutions.

Pictured above is the Mary-Graydon Building of American University. AU is one of 850 test-optional institutions.

After countless hours of studying, Ellie Foyle was disappointed by her SAT scores. A student at a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut, she felt that the test results did not accurately reflect her abilities.

Luckily for her, Foyle learned that her scores wouldn’t hold her back everywhere she applied. Her top-choice school, Rollins College, which is ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges of 2013, is test-optional.

“SAT scores don’t reflect my round-table style of learning,” Foyle said. “I was happy to find test-optional schools where I can instead write an essay to show my writing strength.”

Rollins is one of a growing number of test-optional institutions. According to  FairTest, an advocacy group whose web site has more than 300,000 annual visits,  said that in the spring of 2013, there were roughly 850 four-year test-optional colleges. Mostly small private schools, these universities are located throughout the country from California to Vermont.

FairTest defines test-optional universities as “Schools that do not use SAT or ACT scores for admitting substantial numbers of students into bachelor degree programs.”

The SAT, founded in 1926 as an adaptation of the Army Alpha IQ test, has served as a common yardstick for many students. But schools such as Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., have decided to move away from that yardstick. Instead, emphasis is put on an applicant’s high school performance, specifically GPA and strength of academic schedule.

“Standardized test scores are beneficial because they provide a standard,” said Caitlin Hansen, assistant director of admission at Bryant University, in an email. “It is an easy way to compare applicants domestically and abroad.”

Supporters of this test argue that the test is easy to administer, quick to grade, offsets grade inflation, predicts success in college and has an unbiased grader — a machine. And studies show that colleges tend to give merit-based scholarships to individuals who submit their scores.

According to independent research and test-makers themselves, high school grades predict college success better than ACT or SAT tests.

“In addition to being inaccurate, college admissions tests are biased against females, students whose first language is not English, and applicants who have been out of school for several years,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTestm, in an email. “They are also highly susceptible to coaching.”

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., was the first nationally-ranked science and engineering school to become test-optional in 2008.

“At a time when the United States faces mounting competition from other nations in the fields of science, engineering, and technology, it is imperative that we identify and support talent from all quarters,” said Dennis D. Berkey, president of WPI. “By instituting an SAT-optional admissions policy, WPI is taking bold action to attract a broader range of young people, including those from underrepresented communities, who we believe can succeed at the university and contribute their talents to solving problems around the world.”

As colleges take a holistic view of the admission process, they are instead putting more stock in writing samples, letters of recommendations and personal interviews.

“Personally, I believe that performance on standardized tests has in many ways been over-emphasized  in education for many years now,” said James Bowers, dean of admission at  Shimer College, in an email. “Although these tests may have been useful in the past in comparing students from very different educational backgrounds, overemphasis on test scores in college admission and inappropriate use of test scores in rankings serve to undermine the mission of higher education. The more recent over-emphasis of high-stakes standardized testing in secondary education may also be contributing to the growing dissatisfaction with high school that we have observed in students.”