Q&A With FairTest's Public Education Director

Thursday, August 02, 2007

originally published on http://www.admissionsadvice.com/

For two decades FairTest, a small non-profit organization, has been the leading critic of standardized testing, including college admissions exams. The SAT and ACT, according to FairTest, are not only poor predictors of future academic achievement, but also limit college accessibility for minority and low-income students. FairTest also maintains a list of the more than 740 colleges and universities that have adopted test-optional admissions policies since 1987. This spring, four more schools were added to the list. I recently talked with Robert Schaeffer, FairTest's Public Education Director, about the test-optional movement and the key issues he believes students and parents need to know about standardized admissions testing.

Question: Where does the test-optional movement stand? Are there schools which have not yet adopted test-optional policies that have downplayed their role in admissions?

Schaeffer: Nationally, the test-optional admissions movement is growing rapidly. Three more colleges (Goucher, Merrimack and Green Mountain) dropped their standardized exam requirements just last week, and many more are in the "pipeline." FairTest expects the number of institutions on its list of accredited, bachelor-degree granting schools where substantial numbers of applicants are admitted without regard to SAT or ACT scores (see optional list) to continue to increase as more colleges recognize the value of test-optional policies.

This year, George Mason University in northern Virginia implemented a test-optional admissions policy. So did Salisbury University, a part of Maryland's public higher education system. At George Mason and Salisbury, students with strong high school records (GPA and class rank) in college preparatory courses are not required to submit scores from either the ACT or SAT. A similar policy is currently under consideration at the University of Rhode Island.

Many other schools, which still require applicants to submit test scores, have deemphasized their role. At MIT, for example, research demonstrating that females with somewhat lower test scores do as well academically as higher scoring males has led to the admission of more young women.

Question: In your opinion, why have none of the "big name" schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. gone test optional yet?

Schaeffer: At least one Ivy League school is considering adoption of test-optional admissions as 30 of the nation's "top 100" liberal arts colleges have already done. For the most part, however, test scores do not play a major role in the evaluation of applicants at the most competitive institutions. Since so many candidates are good test-takers, admissions officials can make selection decisions based on other factors.

Question: In your contacts with colleges, why do most colleges make the decision to take the test-optional route? How does it typically end up affecting the way admissions decisions are made?

Schaeffer: College adopt test-optional policies for a variety of reasons, including a growing recognition of the exams' weak predictive value, concerns about bias and susceptibility to coaching, and a desire to send a message that high quality classroom performance is more important than how well a person can fill in multiple-choice bubbles on a Saturday morning. There is no "one-size-fits-all" way to handle college admissions - typically, schools adopt procedures that are consistent with the institution's mission and the profile of the entering class it desires to build. In some cases, this may result in a strong reliance on personal interviews or on detailed reviews of graded writing samples from high school classes.

Question: How do you respond to those who suggest that colleges which go test optional are mainly doing it merely to artificially inflate their test medians and rise in the rankings?

Schaeffer: This claim was always a red-herring, pushed by those who profited from selling tests and true-believers in the ideology that "test scores equal merit." In fact, early adopters of ACT/SAT optional policies generally collected scores from their entire first year classes after enrollment and reported this data to ranking services. FairTest hears this false claim much less frequently now that 30 of the nation's "top 100" liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report, have test-optional policies (see list below). Increasingly, it is the most selective colleges that are dropping ACT/SAT requirements.

Question: Could you give me an example or two of a college that you feel is a particularly good example of a school that has maintained academic excellence even though they are test optional?

Schaeffer: Bates College in Maine, which became test-optional in 1985, has collected data on the performance of its students for the last two decades. Researchers have found no meaningful difference in the academic outcomes of test non-submitters at the same time diversity of the student body increased (Read the study online)Similarly positive results were reported at Mount Holyoke, Muhlenberg, Franklin & Marshall and other colleges with excellent academic reputations.

Question: FairTest suggests that the use of rigid test score "cut-offs" for merit scholarships results in these awards being disproportionately awarded to upper-income, White students. How have test optional schools responded to this, and why do some test optional schools still require students to submit standardized test scores if they want to be considered for merit money?

Schaeffer: Some colleges that have dropped admissions testing requirements have also ended the use of minimum ACT/SAT scores in selecting "merit" scholarship winners. This is a logically consistent position, which recognizes that "test scores do not measure merit."

Institutions which continue to offer test-based tuition awards, including those that are otherwise test-optional, will have to revise their policies over the next year as a new National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) standard barring the practice is implemented. At their 2006 annual conference, NACAC delegates overwhelmingly endorsed adding a proposal stating "Members agree that they will not use minimum scores as the sole criterion for admissions, advising or for the awarding of financial aid" to the organization's Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP). The expanded cut-off score ban is effective for students beginning undergraduate studies in the summer or fall of 2008.


Question: What is the most important thing you think students and parents need to know about standardized entrance exams? Why?

Schaeffer: Most college admissions officers -- and a growing body of independent scholarship -- recognizes that an applicant's high school record is both a more accurate and more equitable predictor of college performance than is the SAT or ACT. In the last two years alone, nearly three dozen selective colleges (see attached chronology), including many of the "best" in the nation, have eliminated standardized testing requirements for substantial numbers of students in their entering classes. Many other schools have moved to "holistic" policies, which consider grades, class rank, rigor of college preparatory coursework, academic honors, special talents, leadership, community service, and family background, to evaluate applicants. All these approaches recognize that students are "much more than their scores."

Question: In particular, what advice would you give to low income and minority students in particular regarding standardized testing and perhaps including test optional schools on their list?

Schaeffer: All students should consider applying to test-optional schools, if those institutions offer the academic courses and social climate they desire. The growing number of colleges that do not consider ACT or SAT scores before making admissions decisions are particularly attractive for students with strong high school records but weaker standardized exam scores, a group which includes many African-American, Latino, new Asian immigrant, and Native American applicants.

Test Optional Schools in the Top 100 U.S. News & World Report “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” July, 2007


US News Rank

5. Middlebury College (Vermont)
7. Bowdoin College (Maine)
17. Hamilton College (New York)
23. Bates College (Maine)
24. Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts)
32. College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts)
36. Bard College (New York)
39. Connecticut College (Connecticut)
Union College (New York)
41. Franklin and Marshall College (Pennsylvania)
41. Dickinson College (Pennsylvania)
45. Gettysburg College (Pennsylvania)
Sarah Lawrence College (New York)
48. Denison University (Ohio)
51. Pitzer College (California)
53. Lawrence University (Wisconsin)
55. Wheaton College (Massachusetts)
57. St. Lawrence University (New York)
67. Hobart and William Smith Colleges (New York)
69. Drew University (New Jersey)
Ursinus College (Pennsylvania)
74. Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania)
79. Gustavus Adolphus College (Minnesota)
Knox College (Illinois)
Lewis and Clark College (Oregon)
91. Bennington College (Vermont)
Goucher College (Maryland)
Hampshire College (Massachusetts)
95. Juniata College (Pennsylvania)
Lake Forest College (Illinois)

source: U.S. News & World Report America’s Best Colleges 2007 Edition pp. 86-88 and FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing

posted by Carolyn Z. Lawrence