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Articles / Applying to College / Admissions Diversity vs. Standardized Testing

Admissions Diversity vs. Standardized Testing

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 14, 2018
Admissions Diversity vs. Standardized Testing
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Here's a headline that should send shockwaves around the world in the college admissions community: "Why hundreds of colleges are ditching the SAT and ACT for incoming freshmen."

The first thing you're probably thinking is, “Okay, so tell me why!" Okay, then. Here:

It's a move that's becoming increasingly common among American schools. At last count, more than 850 colleges and universities in the US are now "test optional," according to an analysis by the non-profit group FairTest. Among the best-known schools that have made the SAT and ACT optional are Wake Forest and NYU. …

Speaking of “best known" schools:

The University of Chicago will no longer require ACT or SAT scores from US students, sending a jolt through elite institutions of higher education as it becomes the first top-10 research university to join the test-optional movement.

Numerous schools, including well-known liberal arts colleges, have dropped or pared back testing mandates in recent years to bolster recruiting in a crowded market. But the announcement Thursday by the university was a watershed, cracking what had been a solid and enduring wall of support for the primary admission tests among the two dozen most prestigious research universities.

If you're a high schooler planning your college search strategies and you may not be the best SAT/ACT taker on the planet, you'll want to check out this list of test-optional schools, where test scores are not required.

If you're curious about the background of how this trend of dropping the SAT and ACT developed, check this chronology that shows where the bandwagon got started and how it gained momentum over the years.

From a personal perspective, I have been an opponent of most standardized testing, especially the SAT, since the earliest days of my work as an independent college admissions consultant, over 30 years ago. While my own children were not affected by generalized test anxiety, as legions of others are, I have worked with many seniors whose admission outcomes were not as successful as they should have been simply because, in part, they weren't brilliant enough on SAT analogies. Yes, I analyzed their score reports.

High School Students May Cheer This News

Speaking of the University of Chicago, where the acceptance rate hovers in scary single digits, here's a quote that should bring a cheer from high school seniors across the land:

“Testing is not the be-all and the end-all," said James G. Nondorf, U-Chicago's dean of admissions and financial aid. He said he didn't want “one little test score" to end up “scaring students off" who are otherwise qualified.

Finally. At last we have a frank admission (no pun intended) from an elite school official. For years, elite colleges downplayed the impact of test scores on admissions, thus giving a false sense of fairness to applicants. There has also always been an element of marketing involved in that de-emphasis of test score impact. Otherwise, why would any senior with mediocre test scores apply to a school like Chicago?

More applicants (of all ranges of test-taking abilities) bring the opportunity to reject greater numbers, resulting in higher selectivity, a.k.a. lower acceptance rates and higher rankings. Don't get me started on rankings.

Keep Your Eyes on the News

You're about to witness a kind of domino effect with this “ditching" (a favorite media term) of standardized testing. We can be -- should be -- grateful for this sea change. Whom or what can we thank, then? One simple word: diversity. To wit:

Study: Colleges That Ditch The SAT And ACT Can Enhance Diversity

There are now well over 1,000 colleges and universities that don't require SAT or ACT scores in deciding whom to admit, a number that's growing every year. And a new study finds that scores on those tests are of little value in predicting students' performance in college, and raises the question: Should those tests be required at all?

Colleges that have gone "test optional" enroll — and graduate — a higher proportion of low-income and first generation-students, and more students from diverse backgrounds, the researchers found in the study, Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works.

"Our research clearly demonstrates that these students graduate often at a higher rate," said Steve Syverson, an assistant vice chancellor at the University of Washington Bothell, and co-author of the study.

… "Our study clearly supports the notion that if an institution wants to do a better job serving traditionally under-served populations, test optional (policies) can provide a very useful tool."

That word “underserved" deserves some clarification. Underserved applicants are not all URMs (underrepresented minorities). These URMs include demographics such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Underserved applicants include those from distressed socioeconomic backgrounds (low-income families and those experiencing other extenuating domestic issues), and even those from geographic locations not normally considered hotbeds of college applicants.

I believe that my son was a beneficiary of geographic diversity. He attended a public high school in a mainly rural, agricultural-industrial region. Add to that the fact that no senior from his high school had been accepted to most of the schools he applied to (and was admitted to) for many years --decades, in fact. That socio-geographic profile, as well as his strong academic and extracurricular profile helped him, I'm sure, because other similarly qualified applicants from other “hotbed" areas were not as successful as he was.

I couldn't be happier with this de-emphasis of standardized testing. As the cliche goes, the playing field must be made more level. Although I have often preached that being successful and happy in life does not require a college education, I often wonder how many bright, deserving high school seniors have been seriously disillusioned because of being denied at certain colleges due to their less-than-stellar test-taking skills. It's time for that to change and, thankfully, it looks like it is changing.

Policy Shows Logic

Going back to Dean Nondorf, we can see the entirely reasonable logic of Chicago's policy:

“It is about doing the RIGHT thing," Nondorf wrote in an email. “Which is helping students and families of all backgrounds better understand and navigate this process and about bringing students with intellectual promise (no matter their background) to UChicago (and making sure they succeed here too!)."

The test-optional policy will apply only to US applicants. Those from overseas — about 16 percent of the applicant pool — still must submit scores. Colleges often rely on testing to help them navigate less-familiar territory in the international market.

Nondorf said the university aims to recruit more students from lower- and middle-income families. Of its 6,000 undergraduates, about 10 percent had enough financial need in 2016-2017 to qualify for federal Pell Grants. That is a lower share than many of U-Chicago's peers.

Quantifying the case for diversity is accumulating more precision:

Why is dropping testing requirements good for diversity? We already know about racial disparities on standardized tests: the average score on the reading part of the SAT was 429 for black students last year — 99 points below the average for white students.

Two studies published in the Harvard Education Review seem to have confirmed that the SAT and ACT contain biases against minorities. The most recent study, published in 2010, found that black and white students whose educational backgrounds and skill sets suggested they should score similarly still got different results. Specifically, white students got higher scores on easier verbal questions, while black students got higher scores on harder verbal questions. ...

The issue of the value of standardized testing can devolve into a very large weasel-worded ball of wax. Perhaps the stickiest part of that waxy wicket is the issue of college rankings and their relationship with test scores, an issue that merits at least an additional blog posting by itself. However, to give you a cogent glimpse into that can of worms, in closing, here's an insightful portion from Part II of a two-part article by David Tomar, writing in The Quad:

In spite of its messy implications, the standardized test is viewed as among the cleanest ways to size up universities for comparison. But the rise in profile for test-optional admissions policies suggests two things, and neither of them is very good. First, universities have increasingly less confidence that the SAT/ACT testing regime is serving their priorities, either of achieving diversity or recruiting the most excellent students. Second, some universities perceive test scores as an easy avenue through which to game the ranking system.

However you spin this thing, the tests don't come out looking great. Perhaps, then, it is incumbent upon universities and rankers alike to consider the virtues of [test] blindness. While it may not be reasonable to call for the abolition of standardized college boards (yet), it is not unreasonable to demand parallel ranking systems that stack universities against one another both with and without factoring test scores.

Not only would this free up universities to reject standardized testing entirely without fear of ranking reprisal, it could also help to open up the testing industry to new entrants. Evidence abounds that the SAT/ACT regime needs to be better. Nothing like a little healthy competition to force innovation....

A thousand amens to that final bolded (by me) statement. Testing tyranny must end!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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