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Articles / Preparing for College / Is The Testing Tide Going Out?

April 13, 2017

Is The Testing Tide Going Out?

The absolute reign of standardized testing is showing signs of weakening. I took a stroll down memory lane this week as I was clearing out many years of various college-related files that I had collected (a.k.a. "hoarded") over the decades.

As I flipped through the seemingly endless file folders, I came across information pertaining to my two most important "clients" -- my daughter and son. Their high school graduations took place in 1990 and 1995, respectively. (That just goes to show how possessive I am of historical data.)

As I opened their various folders that told the story of their preparation for and transition to college, I was reminded of one heavily present thread throughout all that paperwork: the importance of standardized testing. In their cases, it was the SAT that dominated. Way back then, the ACT was a mere shadow of what it is today -- a growing powerhouse keeping College Board executives up at night.

I found numerous score sheets from our children's various takings of the SAT. In another huge box of older books, I found a group of SAT prep manuals, which I used to work with my kids to sharpen their SAT skills. My wife and I are blessed to have two children who responded well to my coaching and who had innate abilities to deal with testing stresses and academic challenges. Their path to college was smooth and rewarding. But, unfortunately, that's not the case for all high schoolers, which brings me to the point of my post today:

Does standardized testing have to limit a high schooler's ability to find a great college?

The answer is "Probably not." One has to keep in mind that when it comes to college admissions, it's all about The Best Match.

To use an oceanic metaphor, I'm observing a riptide in the standardized testing world. That is, the tide of importance with these tests is simultaneously coming in and going out. That seems counterintuitive, but allow me to explain.

As for the incoming tide (the importance of standardized test scores), just look to admissions at the highest, most competitive level: the Ivy League and many Top 25-50 colleges and universities. Applicants to those schools must meet a certain extremely challenging baseline of credentials, which includes highly accomplished test scores. Without those top scores, their success at getting in will need help from "hooks," such as ethnicity, athleticism, legacy, donor potential, celebrity status, etc. If you are a "typical" elite aspirant, high scores are part of the mandatory package, in most cases.

The ebb tide these days comprises those colleges that are "test optional." These schools do not require their applicants to submit standardized test scores. Theirs is a so-called "holistic" admissions approach where the admissions committees look at applicant qualities beyond sheer numbers, embracing high school seniors' overall profile. Of course, the elite schools look at overall profiles, too, but with those hooks that I mentioned, a low-scoring Ivy applicant most likely will experience a buffered ordeal in getting in.

So, who are these test-optional schools? How many of them are there and is the list growing?

To answer that, you can, of course, just do a Web search for "test-optional colleges." Or, you can peruse an article I found yesterday: The complete list of test-optional colleges and universities, as of now. The Washington Post's Valerie Straus notes:

The list of colleges and universities around the country that are now test-optional for admissions — meaning students can decide whether or not to submit ACT or SAT scores — keeps growing.

Here are the leading 275-plus colleges and universities on the list of more than 900 test-optional schools, a list maintained by the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest that works to end the misuse and abuse of standardized tests. The list includes a small number of test-flexible schools, which allow students to submit test scores of their choice, including Advanced Placement scores rather than SAT or ACT scores ...

First, though, let's take a moment and go back to that term holistic admissions. Here's a partial a refresher from a previous post of mine:

"Have you heard of the term "holistic college admissions"? First of all, let's ask Google to define the term "holistic":

... characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

"Huh? Say what? Let's try again by asking Merriam-Webster:

... relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts

"Ah, now we're getting closer.

"As it applies to college admissions, then, "holistic" means that admission committees look at the overall applicant, not just his or her individual components (GPA, class rank, rest scores, high school schedule, etc.). It's a kind of Big-Picture assessment of what an applicant might bring to a college's student body.

"An analogy of holistic admissions might be looking at a mountain. We see peaks and valleys, maybe even snow and glistening ice, in one magnificent vista. What impresses us less acutely might be the bare, brown spots on the lower slopes that were hit by a forest fire. Or, perhaps, we don't pay too much attention to the surrounding landscape, which might not contribute to the appealing image before us. ...

"You may have a decent grasp on holistic admissions by now. So what's the big deal, you want to know. Well, I started a thread on the College Confidential (CC) discussion forum entitled The truth about 'holistic' college admissions, and so far it has generated almost 500 responses. Obviously, this is a hot-button topic for more than a few people." ...

Now, back to test-optional schools ...

In her Post article, Strauss mentions the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or as it's more commonly known, FairTest.org. Fair Test's mission "works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial." I can't argue with that.

Now, let's take a look at some of those test-optional colleges. This sampling comes from Cappex. For the complete list check Fair Test's site.

American University

Arizona State University at Tempe

Arkansas State University

Austin Peay State University

Bard College

Bates College

Bennington College

Bowdoin College

California State University at Bakersfield, Chico, Dominguez Hills, East Bay, Fresno, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Monteray Bay, Northridge, Sacramento, San Bernadino,San Marcos, and Stanislaus

College of the Atlantic

College of the Holy Cross

Connecticut College

Denison University

DePaul University

Dickinson College

Drew University

East Tennessee State University

Eastern Kentucky University

Fairfield University

Franklin and Marshall College

Furman University

Juniata College

Kansas State University (score required for out-of-state applicants)

King's College

Knox College

Lake Forest College

Lawrence University

Lewis & Clark College

Loyola College in Maryland

Marist College

Middle Tennessee State University

Middlebury College (SATII's required if SAT not submitted)

Minnesota State University

Mount Holyoke College

Muhlenberg College

Nazareth College

New School (certain programs require tests)

Northern Arizona University

Ohio State University at ATI Wooster, Marion, Newark (scores required for out-of-state applicants)

Oklahoma State University, Stillwater

Pitzer College

Providence College

Robert Morris University

Rollins College

St. John's College Annapolis and Santa Fe

Sarah Lawrence College

Sewanee: The University of the South

Smith College

South Dakota State University

Stetson University

Stonehill College

Susquehanna University

Union College

University of Alaska at Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast

University of Arizona

University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Little Rock, Monticello and Pine Bluff

University of Idaho

University of Kansas

University of Maine at Augusta, Farmington, Ft. Kent and Presque Isle

University of Minnesota at Crookston, Duluth and Morris

University of Mississippi

University of Montana at Missoula and Western

University of Nebraska at Kearney and Lincoln

University of Nevada at Las Vegas and Reno

University of Texas at Arlington, Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, Pan American, San Antonio and Tyler

Ursinus College

Wake Forrest University

Washington College

Washington and Jefferson College

Western Kentucky University

Wheaton College (MA)

Wittenberg University

Whitworth University

Worcester Polytech Institute (WPI)


Naturally, this information may be most useful for current high school juniors and sophomores (and possibly freshmen) who are thinking about where to go to college. For many high schoolers, test anxiety is a heavy burden. They may have the ability to handle academics quite well, but when it comes to standardized tests, their anxiety translates into less-than-optimum, even poor, performance.

This, in turn, evolves into dulling their competitive edge at a large group of schools that use test scores as an important component of their evaluation criteria. Now, though, the test-optional admissions concept offers both relief and a welcome alternative to finding a rightly matched college.

You already may have heard about test-optional schools. However, if you haven't seen the latest -- and growing -- list of these institutions, check Fair Test. Their latest list was published March 29, 2017. That's about as current as you can get, at least at this writing.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

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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