Wesleyan, Temple lead tide of colleges scrapping admission tests

A new wave of colleges including Wesleyan University, Bryn Mawr College and Temple University are scrapping standardized tests as an admissions requirement, saying there are better ways to evaluate applicants and expand diversity.

In the past two years, at least 20 U.S. schools including Brandeis University have signed on, telling applicants they no longer need to submit SAT or ACT scores. Students applying to college will find about one in five nonprofit schools that have dropped the proviso since Bowdoin College did so in 1969.

College admissions and testing are in flux. With changing demographics, schools will be competing for fewer high school graduates and want to stand out to prospective students. The SAT, which has lost market share to ACT, is being redesigned for 2016, making a now-mandatory essay optional. Schools say going “test optional” will also benefit low-income and minority students who can’t afford test prep courses or to retake exams.

“This is a moment in time where we felt there’s growing questions in K-12 and beyond about the value of standardized testing,” said Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut, which cut the requirement in May. “We also see this as an access initiative. We’ve known for a long time the correlation between test scores and income.”

A study released in February that found no significant difference in the grade-point average or graduation rates between applicants who did and didn’t submit test scores was another reason behind the school’s decision, Meislahn said.

The study, co-written by William Hiss, a former admissions dean at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, examined 33 colleges over three years and found non-submitters were more likely to be first-generation college enrollees, all categories of minority students, women, students with learning disabilities and recipients of Pell Grants, which are reserved for low-income students.

More schools are comfortable with dropping the requirement after hearing from fellow admissions officials that it improves diversity without undermining academic quality, said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit group critical of standardized testing.

“It’s the most rapid growth of the test-optional movement that we can recall,” Schaeffer said.

High school transcripts are better at evaluating applicants than standardized test scores, because they give a four-year overview of a student’s ability to manage a rigorous curriculum, said Peaches Valdes, director of admissions at Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia. The school said in July it was switching to a test-optional policy from “test flexible” – where students could submit a combination of scores, such as SAT subject tests.

Of about 1,800 four-year nonprofit colleges in the U.S., 22 percent, or about 400, didn’t require an entrance exam in 2013, compared with 18 percent a decade earlier, according to the College Board, the New York-based group that administers the SAT. Among that rank are Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, North Carolina; Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; and Pitzer College in Claremont, California.

ACT Inc., based in Iowa City, Iowa, had 1.85 million members of the high school class of 2014 take its entrance exam, up 2.6 percent from a year earlier. Wayne Camara, ACT’s senior vice president of research, questioned the motive of schools that drop the exam requirement.

“Research suggests that test-optional policies are not increasing diversity in schools beyond other institutions,” Camara said by telephone. Colleges that require the test “admit students with low test scores if they excel in other ways,” he said.

Camara cited a study released in June of 180 liberal arts colleges by researchers at the University of Georgia, who found that test-optional policies as a whole “have done little to meet their manifest goals of expanding educational opportunity for low-income and minority students.”

Some test-optional schools recommend submitting test scores for other uses such as consideration for merit scholarships and course placement, according to the nonprofit College Board, which hasn’t released its class of 2014 statistics yet. The previous year, 1.66 million students took the SAT.

“The predictive validity of college entrance exams like the SAT is an essential part of the admissions process for the vast majority of colleges and universities in this country,” Carly Lindauer, a College Board spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We will continue to listen to our members, evolve our programs and work to expand access to opportunity for all students.”

Last month, Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, made the switch, while Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, recommended it in a strategic plan. A final decision is expected in January, said Macalester President Brian Rosenberg.

Philadelphia-based Temple and Beloit College in Wisconsin both will become test optional with the class entering in fall 2015.

For applicants who don’t submit scores, Temple requires they provide short answers to four online questions to show qualities of “grit” such as self-awareness and coping mechanisms, said William Black, senior vice provost of enrollment management. The school announced its decision in July.

Beloit wants to see examples of students responding to life circumstances, including their ability to adapt and reach goals, said Robert Mirabile, vice president for enrollment at the college, which disclosed its decision in August.

“You might see it in an essay, you might see it in a recommendation, a pattern of grades in a transcript or through other means,” Mirabile said. “Many times, it’s the students who encounter a challenge of failure early on who wind up the most motivated or successful.”

Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, Ohio, said its move away from entrance exams will help it appeal to more students, said Alisha Couch, director of admission. The school tried out a new policy last year, letting high school juniors with a 3.5 cumulative grade-point-average skip the test requirement. It lowered the minimum GPA this year to 3.0 to be more in-line with competitors, she said.

“I don’t want to say it’s market driven, but it kind of is,” Couch said. “Anything you can do to be more attractive to high-achieving students is a good thing.”

Most U.S. colleges – including the eight members of the Ivy League – require SAT or ACT test scores. In May, Harvard University’s undergraduate college dropped a requirement that applicants additionally submit two SAT subject tests.

Brandeis in Waltham, Massachusetts, is in the second year of a two-year pilot program, said Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment.

U.S. applicants can submit results of three exams that assess subjects including English or math, such as an AP test, or a graded analytical paper along with a teacher evaluation.

While applications to Brandeis increased by almost 6 percent last year, the policy wasn’t widely marketed, Flagel said. In the current freshman class, about 10 percent of the 860 enrollees didn’t submit an SAT or ACT score, he said.

He said a common misperception about test-optional policies is that schools become easier to get into.

“The reality is that they’re often even more competitive” because admissions offices are looking more deeply at other criteria, such as academic record, Flagel said.