Across North Carolina and the nation, high school seniors are sweating their college applications and fretting about one number: their SAT score.
But not students aiming for Wake Forest University, which no longer requires students to submit the standardized test score. Wake Forest was the first highly ranked research university to announce the move away from the SAT in 2008.
Since then, the university in Winston-Salem has become more racially and socio-economically diverse. Pell Grant recipients almost doubled. Students of color increased from 18 percent to nearly 23 percent.
Along the way, the university also noticed an uptick in the number of students with an exemplary high school track record, which, research shows, is the best predictor of college success. The percentage of Wake Forest first-year students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes grew from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent last fall.
"We feel like we have attracted students that have achieved a great deal in the classroom, who are very talented, who are very bright, who are very hard working students but who had one thing going against them and that was the SAT," said Martha Allman, admissions dean at Wake Forest.
"When we became test-optional, we started seeing these wonderful students that perhaps we would not have seen in our applicant pool before. We don't have any regrets at all."
The university's results are reported in a new book, "SAT Wars," edited by Joseph Soares, a sociology professor at Wake Forest. The book debunks the notion that standardized tests are a good indicator of future academic achievement.
It is published as North Carolina embarks on a new era of testing. Starting in March, the state will require high school juniors to take the ACT, the other major college entrance exam used in the United States. The state does not require the SAT, but it is the most commonly administered entrance exam among college-bound students in North Carolina.
The effort will cost the state $5.5 million, which includes three types of tests - a diagnostic test for high school sophomores, a standardized test to assess workplace readiness, and the ACT.
Soares has been an outspoken critic of college entrance exams, which he describes as having built-in biases and a discriminatory effect. He said North Carolina's plan makes no sense.
"It's money being flushed down the toilet," he said. "This is a terrible idea."
Focus on content
June Atkinson, the state superintendent, said the ACT will be one useful component in evaluating performance of students and schools.
"What we want to gain from administering ACT - which is more content-based than SAT - is that we want to have an indication of whether students have the content necessary for them to be college-ready," she said.
At least a half dozen other states require the ACT, including Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky. The ACT, which generally has not been used as a college entrance exam in North Carolina, was chosen because it includes a section on science, Atkinson said.
Because most colleges still require the ACT or SAT, all North Carolina high school students will have one test under their belt - paid for by the state. They can then use that score to seek college admission.
And, Atkinson said, the ACT can help the state identify weaknesses in academic content areas. So for example, if North Carolina scored below par in science, the state could pursue professional development for teachers, curriculum changes or even better lab equipment for public school classrooms.
"So it will give us feedback about where we need to make improvements," Atkinson said.
The debate about the value of college entrance exams has raged for years. Some 850 four-year colleges no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, according to FairTest, a national organization that tracks testing issues.
Bob Schaeffer of FairTest said Wake Forest had provided useful research and "a very powerful example for their peers."
Schaeffer estimated there are a half dozen nationally competitive universities currently re-evaluating their policies, though the majority of the nation's colleges still require applicants to submit an entrance exam score.
There is too much blind faith in the SAT, which has become a gold standard but lacks any real evidence behind it to show that it improves educational quality or outcomes, Schaeffer said. "The entire high stakes testing venture is based on ideology and belief, not data," he said.
Wake Forest attracted national attention when it went test-optional. In 2009, the university hosted a conference titled "Rethinking Admissions," about the role of standardized testing. It drew admissions officers from around the country.
Increase in applications
That first year, applications at Wake Forest jumped 16 percent, including an increase of 46 percent from students of color overall and 70 percent from African-Americans. North Carolina applicants increased 52 percent and came from all 100 counties - for the first time in university history.
The response was more than Wake Forest expected.
The university revamped its admissions process to stress personal interviews with prospective students and an application supplement with short-answer questions to reveal writing quality and intellectual curiosity. Students were asked questions such as "What outrages you?" "Argue a position you don't support." Or "Define cool."
The Wake Forest staff conducted some 4,000 interviews with applicants, and eventually had to add employees to cope with the crush. The admissions office has a new building designed for the process, with small conversation nooks and interview rooms.
Emily English, 20, a junior psychology major, earned all A's in high school. She desperately wanted to go to Wake Forest, but she wasn't happy with her SAT score, which she described as average.
"I know that my scores on the SAT were not indicative at all of how I would do, and am doing, in college now," she said. "It's four hours of your life that you're taking this test, and it's not a good indicator compared to your four years of high school."
English has performed well at Wake Forest, earning a grade point average of 3.9 in a recent semester. She is on track to graduate a semester early and plans to go to graduate school to prepare for a career in counseling.
Allman, the Wake Forest admissions dean, said about 70 percent to 75 percent of applicants still submit their test scores.
But not requiring the score has led the university to evaluate students more holistically, she said.
"Our student body has actually gotten stronger. We have not seen different attrition rates among these students," she said. "But I think it's going to be very hard to move the needle because test scores are very entrenched in our culture."
Soares said he hopes more universities follow Wake Forest.
"A high-stakes test produces high anxiety. That is dysfunctional," Soares said. "Score high or score low, it doesn't capture your intelligence, your work ethic or your ability to succeed at college or later in life."