Muhlenberg College profile from Test Scores Do No Equal Merit
In 1996, the trustees of Muhlenberg College, a small, selective
liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, voted unanimously to make
the SAT and ACT an optional part of the school's admissions policy
for all applicants. Muhlenberg's faculty had already voted overwhelmingly
to end the standardized test score requirement and the president
of the college was a strong supporter of the switch. Under the
new policy, applicants choosing not to submit their test scores
are asked to provide a graded paper with the teacher's comments
on it and to meet with a member of Muhlenberg's admissions staff.
These students are asked to submit test scores, if possible,
after admissions decisions are made to facilitate ongoing assessment
of the test-optional policy.
Muhlenberg's decision made it the fifth member of a loosely
constituted group of Pennsylvania colleges and universities to
alter its admissions policy by deemphasizing SAT and ACT scores.
Dickinson College, Franklin & Marshall College (see above),
Lafayette College, and Susquehannah University are other members
of the "Keystone Group" that have made the tests optional
or otherwise limited their role in making admissions decisions.
Ac-cording to Muhlenberg Admissions Director, Christopher Hooker-Haring,
these schools have helped each other move away from traditional
admissions schemes.1 Admissions directors from member
colleges meet and share perspectives on the process of putting
into place new admissions policies and the benefits resulting
from downplaying standardized tests. Hooker Haring also pointed
out that articles and other materials published by Bates and
Bowdoin Colleges, two pioneers in test-optional admissions policies,
were influential at Muhlenberg.2
Muhlenberg's conversion to a test-optional admissions policy
began two years before the trustees' vote when Hooker-Haring
and his staff began to take a closer look at the costs and benefits
of continuing to require all applicants to submit scores. The
number and quality of applicants to Muhlenberg was already increasing
so the school was in a strong position to consider changes. As
noted in a question-and-answer fact sheet released at the time
the new policy was announced, Muhlenberg became concerned that
"standardized tests had come to occupy too much space in
the middle of the college admissions process, both on the part
of students, who often imagine that the SAT carries greater weight
than it really does in the selection process, and on the part
of colleges, which may be forced by the current rating and ranking
mania to become more SAT-driven in admissions decision-making
in order to protect profiles, rankings, etc."3
In particular, as the fact sheet noted, Muhlenberg "wanted
to offer encouragement to groups of students who are underrepresented
on many selective college campuses who often do not score well
on the SAT (i.e., non-English speaking students, low income students,
first generation college students, students of color, some learning
disabled students, etc.)."
The campus-wide discussion that preceded the faculty vote
on the proposal to revise the admissions policy touched on most
of the major issues that confront smaller schools where admissions
staff review all individual applications. According to Hooker-Haring,
there are approximately 800 such colleges in the United States.
He believes all of them could drop their test score requirements
without impairing significantly their capacity to recruit and
select their incoming classes.4 Gary Ripple, the Director
of Admissions at Lafayette, another Keystone member that does
not require SAT or ACT scores, shares Hooker-Haring's belief
that many of these institutions have little need for test scores
when making admissions decisions.5 Many of these schools
are concerned not about any loss in their ability to choose from
among applicants but rather fear criticism from test supporters,
including the College Board, who falsely mislabel the decision
to drop test score requirements as lowering academic standards.
During the debate over the proposed changes, admissions officers
and members of a faculty subcommittee reviewed data describing
the correlations between SAT scores and performance at Muhlenberg.
Besides national College Board studies, Muhlenberg had internal
correlation data from the previous year. According to Hooker-Haring,
this data confirmed College Board and independent studies showing
that, even with grade inflation and the tremendous diversity
of U.S. high schools, grades were still the best predictors of
college performance.6 Muhlenberg also makes subtle
adjustments when evaluating grades from high schools where there
has been higher--average grade inflation.
Beyond narrow discussion of this data, however, Hooker-Haring
and his staff explained to faculty members how admissions decisions
were made, and how that decision-making process would not change
significantly in the absence of SAT scores. Muhlenberg already
reviewed each applicant's materials twice and gathered information
about applicants' high schools. By carefully reviewing high school
profiles that include such information as grade distributions
and percentage of students going to four-year colleges, admissions
officers can place students' high school grades in a more meaningful
context. Muhlenberg also contacts high schools to gather additional
data, if necessary. Among other sources of information about
high schools, the College Board compiles figures that are readily
available to members.
During the discussions about the proposed changes, several
arguments in particular persuaded faculty members that a test-optional
policy would benefit Muhlenberg. The first was the strong correlation
between family income and SAT scores, a link reinforced by the
availability of high-priced commercial test preparation courses.
Hooker-Haring pointed out that Muhlenberg has no idea who has
taken such courses and who has not, subverting claims that the
SAT and ACT offer schools "standardized" and "objective"
means of comparing students from different high schools.7
In the fact sheet released when the policy change was announced,
Muhlenberg noted that "recent studies have shown that performing
on standardized tests is a skill that can be developed with practice
and coaching" and that the susceptibility of tests to coaching
"certainly removes an element of 'standardization' and gives
further advantage to those who are affluent enough to afford
Beyond the narrow consideration of correlation data, however,
the admissions staff also argued that whatever benefits accrue
from using the tests do not justify the costs. Benefits, based
on test score/grade correlation data, include a slightly greater
ability to predict first-year academic performance. However,
as Muhlenberg noted in its question-and-answer fact sheet, College
Board data indicate "that the SAT adds between .06 and .08
of predictive power to the high school record."8
Even those increases are calculated just by comparing first-year
grade-point average alone to grade-point average plus test scores,
omitting any of the other criteria admissions counselors use
to make selection decisions.
The costs of the test score requirement were considerable:
many students chose not to apply, particularly minority, first-generation
and low-income students. Muhlenberg knew from the experiences
of other test-optional schools that these students were deterred
by its SAT/ACT requirements. High school counselors had also
confirmed that some students were put off by the test score criteria.
"The negative or exclusionary impact of the SAT falls most
heavily on minority and low income groups of students because
they tend to score lower on the test," Muhlenberg's fact
sheet noted. According to Hooker-Haring, Muhlenberg admissions
officers and faculty members were impressed by the rise in applications
experienced by Bates College after it switched to an optional
In the two years since the test-optional policy was put into
place, Muhlenberg has experienced a more than 25 percent increase
in applications, posting two consecutive record years and exceeding
3,000 applicants for the first time. Of those, some 15 percent
have chosen not to submit standardized test scores. There have
not yet been significant changes in the numbers of minority or
other underrepresented applicants, but Muhlenberg is receiving
more applications from minority students who attend high schools
which have not traditionally been feeder schools. Wheaton College
in Norton, Massachusetts, which implemented its optional policy
in 1992, has also received more applications from minority students
and has set up a special pipeline to a predominantly minority
inner-city high school in Philadelphia. Many of the applicants
from that school choose not to submit test scores.9
To handle the increase in applicants and the greater demands
placed on admissions officers by the policy shift (reading the
nonsubmitters' graded papers), Muhlenberg added one person to
its admissions staff. Since Muhlenberg already takes the time
to read each application twice, the extra workload required just
a small increase in the number of admissions personnel. Hooker-Haring
noted that he has warned the College Board that under-investment
in admissions is a danger because it encourages colleges and
universities to rely more heavily on such easy-to-quantify criteria
as standardized admissions test scores. Again, he says, this
applies to the 800 or so schools that also read applications
at least twice.10
From a marketing standpoint, Hooker-Haring explained, Muhlenberg
has been very happy with the new admissions policy. In addition
to the increase in applications, Muhlenberg has earned the goodwill
of many high school counselors, parents and students.
1 Christopher Hooker-Haring, telephone
interview, November 1997.
2 Hooker-Haring, telephone interview, November 1997.
3 "Questions and Answers About Muhlenberg's Test-Optional
4 Hooker-Haring, telephone interview, November 1997.
5 Gary Ripple, Director of Admissions, Lafayette,
interview, July 1997.
6 Hooker-Haring, telephone interview, November 1997.
8 "Questions and Answers About Muhlenberg's Test-Optional
9 Gail Berson, Director of Admissions, Wheaton College,
telephone interview, August 1998.
10 Hooker-Haring, telephone interview, November 1997.
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