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.
Mike Sexton, dean of admissions at Oregon's Lewis and Clark College, which went "test-optional" 17 years ago, said part of the reason was growing skepticism of the high-stakes testing model in general — including the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which requires testing in K-12.
"Is a multiple-choice test for three hours one morning the gateway into a student's soul?" he asked.
Another factor is the concern among some admissions officials that while the tests were designed to equal the playing field for rich and poor students, they may now favor the rich.
"As more and more of the affluent population avail themselves of expensive test-preparation courses and pay to take the tests multiple times, the gap between them and the less affluent becomes greater," said Steven T. Syverson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Wisconsin's Lawrence University, which went test-optional two years ago partly due to this concern.
Proponents of such policies point to Maine's Bates College, which adopted a test-optional admission policy in 1984 and released a 20-year study a few years ago finding virtually no difference in academic performance or graduation rates between those who had submitted test scores and those who hadn't.
Some critics question whether test-optional schools are simply trying to generate more applications so they'll have a higher rejection rate, while some say such policies could serve to inflate the schools' average SAT-scores.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when these colleges make SAT scores optional, only applicants with higher scores are going to submit them, thus inflating the college's mean [SAT] score," said Bev Taylor, an independent college consultant based in New York.