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)

Making the Switch

One thing that always bothered Angel B. Perez about the traditional decision process was the fact that standardized tests are not necessarily the best predictors of college success. “Then why are they required?” asks Perez, VP of enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “And, are there other ways we can give students the opportunity to represent their predictability for success during the application process?”

Last year, Perez presented these arguments to Trinity College’s faculty, board of trustees, and admissions team. Using his past experience at a different test-optional school as foundational proof, he was able to get everyone on board with a new admissions policy that kicked in last fall. The idea caught on quickly among applicants, nearly half of which did not submit test scores. “I’m blown away by that number,” says Perez. “I didn’t expect that many students to take us up on that offer so quickly.”

Perez, who sees anxiety over the new SAT format—and over testing in general—as one of the key drivers of that quick adoption. On a more global scale, he says the test-optional approach helps schools net a higher percentage of engaged, interested, and intellectual students who just may not test well, for whatever reason. When reviewing applications, Perez says Trinity College’s admissions team looks at high school grades, curriculum, and—perhaps most importantly—context. “All grades are not created equal,” he points out, “so look at how the individual has performed academically in the context of what was offered at that particular high school (i.e., honors courses, AP courses, college prep courses, etc.).”

Trinity College also pays “very close attention” to teachers’ recommendation letters and uses them as an indicator of what the student will “be like in the classroom,” says Perez. “I look for keywords like curiosity, engagement, participation, and perseverance.”

From a practical perspective, Perez says managing the test-optional institution is more difficult than putting a high emphasis on text scores. “You can’t be formulaic about it; you can’t just say this GPA plus this SAT equals a ‘yes,’” says Perez. “We read every file twice before it goes to an admissions committee for a third review. For 7,000 applications, that’s 21,000 touches spread across a staff of 11 people. It’s a lot of work in a 3-month span.”

Technology helps to ease some of that burden. For example, Trinity College’s admission department recently started using Technolutions Slate, which includes customer relationship management (CRM), outreach, travel management, online applications, and online reading. “With the volume of applications we’re managing, we could never be reading files on paper,” says Perez. “We just couldn’t do it.”

(Next page: Finding test-optional admissions success)

Appealing to a Broader Pool

For its 2015-16 school year, Pitzer College of Claremont, Calif., fielded 4,149 applications and admitted 12.9 percent of those students (536 total) with an average GPA of 3.93. This “Class of 2019” comprises 40.1 percent students of color, 8.2 percent international students, and 11.8 percent first-generation college students. A test-optional campus since 2003, Pitzer made the move after finding (via its own study) that there was no direct correlation between its students’ academic success and standardized testing.

Since Pitzer stopped requiring the SAT or ACT for admission, the campus has seen a 58 percent increase in diversity, an 8 percent increase in GPA, and a 39 percent increase in applicants with a 10 percent increase in retention. The college has also doubled the number of students from low income, first generation backgrounds.

According to Santiago Ybarra, interim director of admissions, the institution uses a holistic approach to student admission with emphasis placed on high school transcripts, recommendation letters, leadership positions, work history, involvement in school and community activities, and commitment to Pitzer’s core values. The latter is especially vital, says Ybarra, and something that really can’t be “tested” for.

“For us, the admissions process is really about ‘fit,’” says Ybarra. “Of course we look for strong academics and preparedness for college, but we’re very centered on a set of core values that include social justice, environmental sustainability, and cultural understanding. When we talk about selectivity, we’re talking about the individuals who adhere to one or more of those core values—not the highest GPA, the best testing, or the most extracurricular activities.”

Ybarra says Pitzer’s test-optional policy also helps the school reach those populations that don’t necessarily perform well on standardized tests, but that would be a good candidate for the school. “Someone who has a high GPA but who is worried that a 520 verbal SAT score will lower his or her profile might not even apply here,” says Ybarra. “But when you take the testing component out of the equation and talk to them about it during school visits and presentations, their ears perk up.”

Leveling the Playing Field

Hiss, of course, isn’t surprised at the way schools like Trinity College and Pitzer College have embraced the concept of the test-optional college campus. And based on the number of schools that have joined the movement over the last few years, he expects more institutions to move in this direction in the coming years.

“The idea that a single, standardized test can accurately measure millions of different people over a wide span of cultural differences and intelligences is a monstrous and hurtful trip up a blind alley,” says Hiss. “I think optional testing is a piece—and only a piece—of a step toward trying to level the playing field.”


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