What do test-optional admissions really look like?

Institutions at varying levels of test-optional admissions implementation report resounding success across multiple factors.

The number of schools that “de-emphasize” the ACT and SAT in admissions decisions in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Guide (2016 Edition) currently exceeds 200—an indication that the “test optional” college campus could soon become the norm rather than the exception. Institutions like Wake Forest University and George Washington University are openly revealing the impetus behind—and results of—their own test-optional efforts, while smaller schools are also experimenting with the idea of looking “beyond the numbers” and using multiple, non-test-oriented factors when admitting students.

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The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which has been tracking the rise of the test-optional school since 2004 (view the entire chronology online here), reports that 37 new colleges joined the fray between winter 2014 and winter 2015 semesters alone.

Bill Hiss, former dean of admissions at Bates College (test optional since 1984) in Lewiston, Me., co-authored a National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) study that explored the impact of using GPAs and other non-test-related measures when admitting students. The findings were extensive and well publicized, but essentially boiled down to one simple fact:  the difference between cumulative GPAs and graduation rates of “submitters” versus “non-submitters” was 5/100 of a point and 6/10 of 1 percent, respectively.

“By anyone’s statistical calculations, those are trivial differences,” says Hiss, who adds that the NACAC study opened a lot of colleges’ eyes to the value of the test-optional campus, particularly for first-generation college students, minorities, those from low-income households, and those with learning disabilities. “Two years later,” says Hiss, “not a month goes by that I’m not talking to another college that’s thinking about going test-optional.”

In this article, we’ll look at three colleges that are at different stages of the test-optional movement. One helped pioneer the movement over 30 years ago, another has been test-optional since 2003, and the last one just adopted a test-optional policy during the fall of 2015. We’ll hear why and how they made the transition, the parameters they use for admissions, the test-optional challenges they’ve faced, and how the decision has worked out for the institutions and their students.

Students Take Center Stage

Every student who applies to Bates College gets his or her moment in the spotlight—that time when admissions counselors are reviewing folders that could include anywhere from 15 to 25 potential “stage lights.” Testing could be one of those lights, notes Hiss, but the biggest emphasis is placed on high school transcripts, followed by essays, recommendations, interviews, other projects, and extracurricular activities. Geographic diversity, legacy qualities, and minority status also come into play.

Hiss says this multi-pronged approached has helped Bates College overcome an issue that all institutions grapple with: the instance of “false negatives”—or, a test result that incorrectly indicates that a particular condition or attribute is absent. In the college setting, false negatives can mislead schools into assuming a “student can’t do good work here,” says Hiss, who estimates that 30 percent of non-submitters in the NACAC study performed well in college despite “less strong” test scores.

“If we had a medical test with a 30 percent rate of false negatives, and that said you had the disease when you really didn’t, would that be okay?” Hiss asks. “The same principles apply in the college setting, where putting more spotlights on the prospective student makes the entire process more accurate.”

The test-optional campus does present some challenges for schools that have historically placed high emphasis on applicants’ standardized test scores. According to Hiss, Bates’ faculty was initially concerned that the new policy would scare off high-scoring students who would somehow think the school wasn’t interested in them anymore. Hiss says the fears were unwarranted, namely because most applicants know of someone who has had to go beyond test scores to get into the college of his or her choice (i.e., participated in relevant extracurricular activities, taken leadership roles, etc.).

There are also more applications to sort through. According to Hiss, Bates’ applicant pool expanded from 2,200 to 6,500 students when it stopped requiring standardized test scores. “It doesn’t happen in every case, but most test-optional colleges have seen steady and clear increases in applicants,” says Hiss, who adds that most colleges that begin to move in the test-optional direction tend to follow through with it. “Hundreds of schools over the last 30 years have taken this route; I’m only aware of a few that decided it wasn’t right for them.”

(Next page: How to make the switch to test-optional admissions)

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