Students Fed Up With Testing Are Driving Schools to Ditch the SAT

The ACT is being left behind too.
(Photo: Allen J. Schaben/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)
Sep 22, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

For teens in pursuit of high ACT or SAT scores, cracking open test-prep books and booting up online practice software have become high school rites of passage. After all, students and parents are told, colleges and universities want numerical proof beyond a GPA that a kid can cut it on campus.

But according to the latest tally of college and universities, the popularity of the ACT and SAT among higher ed admissions offices seems to be on the decline. The number of four-year institutions with test-optional admissions policies is growing.

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Data released this week by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, show that about 870 colleges and universities are now test optional, with 50 campuses joining the movement in the last year. Half of the nation’s top liberal arts schools, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, no longer require ACT or SAT scores from most students for admission. More than 240 “top tier” schools in the magazine’s 2017 rankings now have test-optional or test-flexible admissions policies.

“We’re talking places like Wesleyan and Brandeis, George Washington, American University, Holy Cross, Bates, Bowdoin, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Bryn Mawr. It’s big names,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest.

Schaeffer said the SAT and ACT test-prep landscape has become “an arms race in which students, their parents, and teachers believe that everybody else is playing the game and taking steroids to boost their scores, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose out. But that’s not true at 870-plus colleges.”

What’s driving the shift? A generation of teens educated in schools that force standardized tests on them nearly every year of their K–12 experience is a major contributing factor.

“We hear all the time from high school students that they love the test-optional movement because it guarantees that there are schools where they’ll be treated as more than a score,” Schaeffer said. “Particularly after the No Child Left Behind era of testing everything that moves, kids are fed up with constant test prep and testing and being judged by tests.”

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But along with being appealing to teens, the test-optional movement is being embraced by college admissions offices that have decades of data showing that GPA—not SAT or ACT scores—is the most accurate predictor of college success.

“The decisions to go test optional are being made by college admissions leaders based on data, not ideology. The most important factor is their own experience with the value of test scores,” Schaeffer said. That can be seen in Wednesday’s decision by Wheelock College, a small liberal arts school in Boston, to ditch the exams.

“One day of testing does not take into consideration a student’s four years of high school work,” Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock, said in a statement. “Test-optional allows us to take a more holistic perspective of a student’s potential to succeed.”

To make the decision, Wheelock studied student performance from 2011–15 to measure the SAT’s effectiveness at predicting academic success in college. It found that “SATs—alone or combined with high school GPA—did not improve the accuracy of predictions of whether students would meet specific success outcomes,” including whether a student would graduate, according to the statement.

Other schools, such as Bates College, which has been test optional for about 30 years, and Mt. Holyoke, which stepped away from the exams 15 years ago, are also evidence. “Other institutions like them see that, in general, going test optional increases the number of applications, increases the academic ability of your applicant pool, and increases the diversity of all sorts. It’s a win-win for college admissions offices,” Schaeffer said. “You get more kids to choose from and more diversity. That’s what most colleges and universities are interested in.”

In comparison, data from the College Board, creators of the SAT, show that students with higher scores tend to come from more well-off families—the folks with the money to buy test-prep books and pay for testing software and private schools. That’s led some critics to dub the exam the “Student Affluence Test.”

There are shades of gray in the test-optional movement, Schaeffer said. “The most pure is Hampshire College, which won’t even look at the test scores if you send them. They look at your grades, the rigor of the courses you’ve taken, your community service, your extracurricular activities, your leadership, family background—for the jargon word, it’s ‘holistic’ or ‘comprehensive’ admissions.”

But the growing popularity of the movement doesn’t mean Ivy League universities—known for their high-pressure admissions standards—will necessarily follow suit.

“For many years we believed that if only Harvard or Princeton would go test optional, then all the other dominoes would fall,” Schaeffer said. “I think that’s not true—and we had an example of it: A couple years back, both Harvard and Princeton and the University of Virginia eliminated their early decision process, which is one of the things that drives kids crazy. And absolutely no other schools in the country followed suit, and they went back to it.”

Still, Schaeffer is hopeful that more schools that “attract the bulk of college applicants” will adopt a holistic admissions process. Kids need a “place based on what they know and can do as proven by 11, eleven-and-a-half years of schoolwork, rather than how well they fill in bubbles on a Saturday morning,” he said.

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