With the traditional focus on taking the SATs and ACTs, it may be surprising to learn that some colleges allow prospective students to omit these scores from their applications.
About 739 accredited bachelor-degree-granting colleges have adopted “test-optional” policies — several of them recently, including George Mason University last year. While many are specialty institutions, like art and music schools, the list includes a growing number of liberal arts colleges as well, according to a tally compiled by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that is critical of testing.
FairTest Director Bob Schaeffer called it a “rapidly growing trend” with 30 schools adopting such policies in the past few years and almost the same number mulling the idea. He said many college officials feel there’s “a real deficit in attracting talented kids whose talents don’t show up” on standardized tests.
“Test scores are not a good measure of capacity to do college-level work,” he said. “The best way is how you’ve done in college-prep courses.”
The topic is contentious within higher-education circles, with critics of such policies insisting that standardized tests remain one of several factors that should indeed be considered when examining a potential student.
Julie McCullough, dean of admission at Gonzaga University in Washington, said her school receives applications from different types of high schools all across the country and “the SAT and ACT can give us a guideline to use to compare.”
Edna Johnson, a spokeswoman for the College Board — which administers the SAT — said it’s “misleading” to call test-optional policies a trend since 88 percent of 4-year colleges that are selective, meaning they don’t admit all of their applicants, still require a standardized test for admission.
While she said SAT scores obviously shouldn’t be the only factor considered, they remain a national standard that helps schools “make informed decisions,” in light of the thousands of high schools with “widely divergent” academic standards.
Scott Jaschik, an editor at Inside Higher Ed, said going test-optional “is definitely a trend, but it’s not a trend with everybody.” He explained it’s more common in smaller schools, partly because large, selective research universities often need the SATs or ACTs to help winnow down their high number of applicants.
Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said “there’s no abandonment of testing” but that, “the admissions community isn’t as blindly committed to testing as it was a generation ago.” Particularly among liberal arts colleges, he said, “the thought has shifted more to holistic admissions.”
In May, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts became the first nationally ranked science and engineering university to make the SAT an optional requirement for admissions, in part hoping to attract more women and minorities — a common reason cited by test-optional schools.
“The SAT may capture academic aptitude, but aptitude itself doesn’t necessarily reflect success in this type of setting,” says Kristin Tichenor, associate vice president for enrollment management at WPI. “The students who are most successful at WPI are those with high motivation levels, willingness to take initiative and creativity in solving problems.”
“Test-optional” policies vary from school to school. Many, like WPI, require applicants to either submit SAT/ACT scores or high school research papers, science projects and other extra academic indicators.
Others require SAT/ACT scores only from out-of-state applicants or when the minimum grade-point average and/or class-rank requirement is not met. Some test-optional schools still require the test scores for certain programs. And others require the test scores to be submitted, but use them only for placement purposes or to conduct research studies.
George Mason, for example, is test-optional for students in the top 20 percent of their class with at least a 3.5 GPA, and the scores are required for programs such as engineering.