Test-Optional Universities Threaten SAT/ACT Credibility…Or Do They?: Part II

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Why not start with Part 1?

This past July, George Washington University (GW) announced that SAT scores would no longer be a prerequisite for admission. In our last article, we examined the university’s claim that the new policy would help to strengthen diversity across its District of Columbia campus. Today, we consider the far less inspiring possibility that the test-optional trend is in fact a clever bit of misdirection designed to game the all-important college ranking scheme.

On its surface, the rise in test-optional admissions certainly looks like a victory for diversity, something which the SAT/ACT regime has long been accused of obstructing. It also looks a whole lot like a defeat for testing conglomerates like the Educational Testing Services (ETS) and ACT, Inc., who it would appear no longer hold sole possession over the lock-and-key for such schools.

Looks, in this case, may be deceiving. GW has joined a small but growing core of well-regarded colleges, including Brandeis and Wake Forest, in going test-optional. And if their detractors are to be taken at their word, these universities are motivated by more than just progressive ideals. As we explore hereafter, the test-optional policy trend may not be a rejection of the testing regime so much as an exploitation of its most fundamental flaws.

Rigging the Ranks

For years, SAT scores have carried inscrutable prestige on paper. While Harvard does not place a minimum on its college board requirements, you can be sure the Ivy League university just loves to tell people about its 2260 average score at every opportunity.

So do test-optional schools like GW and Brandeis risk diminishing their own reputation?

Actually, the impact is quite the contrary.

As it turns out, the policy change is actually a tremendous way to inflate the appearance of excellence. A 2014 study by the University of Georgia reveals that while test-optional colleges are courting more applicants, they may be doing so with a somewhat disingenuous invitation.

The University of Georgia study reports that those institutions which have gone test-optional will receive an average of 220 more applications a year, a fairly significant increase given that the schools comprising the study enroll an average of 400 first-year students each semester.

Wherever these new applications fall on the admissibility spectrum, the result is a more selective admissions process for the university, at least on paper.

Critics of the test-optional policy argue that its byproduct is pretty much the dictionary-derived opposite of diversity; exclusivity. The study suggests that schools like GW will see a decline in the percentage of applicants who are ultimately granted admission. This is probably not an accident for a university which reported a 45% acceptance rate — its highest ever — just one year before turning to its new test-optional policy.

In the highly competitive game of college rankings, rate of admission is most certainly a factor. It only accounts for 1.5% of variables considered in determining rank, but it is a factor nonetheless.

Greater selectivity can mean higher ranking, which not coincidentally, can help to justify greater selectivity. It’s all rather circular but what it basically amounts to is the illusion of greater academic excellence.

This is not the only gain that GW will make thanks to its new admissions strategy.

Critics also point out that the test-optional strategy tends to encourage only the highest performers to submit scores. In its study, which included 32 test-optional colleges, the University of Georgia found that the average SAT score submitted actually rose by 26 points. Naturally, this is another variable that could raise the ranking of a school which has otherwise achieved no material improvement in its quality or performance.

And even if the difference that these factors make in a university’s ranking is only marginal, that margin could be enough to drive untold numbers of applicants, research dollars, and public grants. In other words, that difference could be enough to motivate policy change.

So clearly, even if at the bottom of its heart, George Washington University intends to contribute to a longterm improvement in diversity through this action, the move is also not also without its advantages.

But what of the risks? Is there a danger to the university that decides to ignore test scores entirely?

Well, yes. But that’s not what’s happening here. Here, we’re only ignoring the least convenient test scores.

So basically, going test-optional is a lot like declaring yourself a vegetarian . . . who only eats the very finest cuts of meat.

Going Test-Blind

But what happens when you truly commit to the vegan lifestyle? . . . from a testing perspective, that is.

If greater diversity is the end game, would it not make better sense to go test-blind altogether? And would this abstention not also be a better remedy under the assumption that SAT/ACT outcomes remain racially tilted?

In a test-optional environment, those with high test scores still enjoy greater opportunity. Arguably, any improvements that colleges see in ranking — whether authentic or manipulated — would only further marginalize those for whom poor test scores have dampened admission prospects. The University of Georgia study reinforces this argument, reporting that few if any gains in diversity have been seen in test-optional schools, at least at this early stage in the game.

These findings imply that if diversity was truly the goal, test-optional universities would simply ditch the test altogether. Refusing to view test scores would pretty much do away with the appearance of gaming U.S. News and World Report rankings.

In fact, it would do away with any kind of appearance at all in said rankings. This is because U.S. News and World Report relies heavily on test scores to make its determinations. Those who defy the top college-ranker by refusing test scores suffer the very serious consequence of exclusion. Sidestepping the SAT/ACT hornet’s nest places even the best universities at a major marketing disadvantage when those annual rankings bubble up.

As much as universities, parents, and students alike share their doubts about just how meaningful these rankings are, few are bold enough to resist the current world order. If a university finds itself excluded there from, its visibility, appeal, and prestige all suffer. It has deprived itself of an easy-to-package selling point and the free marketing that comes with it. Whether or not the applicant believes in the legitimacy of U.S. News and World Report rankings is rather beside the point. There is no replacement for the psychological or sociological implications of ranking in a capitalist system of higher education.

We may think we’re above these rankings, but we aren’t.

Sarah Lawrence College is a perfect case in point. The widely respected private liberal arts school moved to a test-blind policy starting in the early 2000s. Over the following decade, Sarah Lawrence continued to enjoy tremendous regard for its academic standards, the individualized attention afforded its students, and the general quality of life on its Westchester, NY campus.

None of these virtues was sufficient to earn it a spot on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. After nearly a decade, Sarah Lawrence resolved that resistance was futile. In 2013, the school relented and transformed into a test-optional campus. The following year saw its immediate return to the rankings.

College officials admitted that it was strategically unwise to disown the recognition that naturally accompanies its typically admirable spot on any number of college ranking lists. Whatever the school’s philosophical position on standardized tests, the very real competition for applicants and reputation in the higher ed sector makes little space for philosophically-informed business practices.

Sarah Lawrence now finds itself in the company of other well-meaning test-optional colleges that are almost certainly sincere in the desire to improve diversity and accessibility. And a 2014 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) shows that early test-optional adopters like Bates College and Bowdoin College have seen marked improvements in diversity over time.

While causality is not immediately apparent, admission figures suggest the test-optional strategy probably played some part. Across the 33 public and private institutions included in the NACAC study, rates of non-submitter admission per student population varied widely — between 9% and 63% — but non-submitters saw a healthy 30% rate of submission across the boards.

This suggests that many test-optional schools are sincere in their desire to counteract the perceived inequality of SAT/ACTs. But the experience at Sarah Lawrence denotes that this approach is a compromise at best.

Even those which might prefer it another way are beholden to the reputation game.

Settling a Score

One look at Hampshire College’s experience shows the vast differences in consequence between going test-optional and test-blind. Hampshire has always been something of a pioneer in this area, becoming one of the first credible colleges to go test-optional in the 1970s.

Evidence suggests that across a 30-year duration, diversity at the Amherst, Massachusetts campus improved substantially. Of course, so did diversity throughout America’s universities during that period. Again, this makes causality somewhat difficult to prove.

To the point, admissions officers must have had their own doubts because in 2014, Hampshire took the leap from test-optional to test-blind. It’s hard to argue that this was not a philosophical decision. Hampshire found itself immediately exiled from the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Probably not coincidentally, Hampshire also experienced exactly the reverse effect of that experienced by its test-optional counterparts. Instead of a bump in applications, it saw a one year drop from 2600 to 2050.

Likewise, instead of creating an impression of greater selectivity, Hampshire actually saw its rate of acceptance climb from 18% to 26%.

Of course, when you remove the ranking imperative from the figure above, what once appeared as a lack of selectivity now appears as a greater efficiency in the admissions process. Perhaps more importantly, the results at Hampshire suggest that schools which truly wish to embrace diversity must fully unchain themselves from standardized testing.

Whereas no empirical evidence exists to yet suggest that test-optional strategies will help to erase the inequality created by SAT/ACTs, Hampshire reported a marked one-year jump in the overall diversity of its applicants. The test-blind policy helped to stimulate an increase in minority applicants from 26% to 31%. This is not only quite an impressive gain for a single academic year, but it may also serve as yet another indicator that the testing infrastructure is tilted against minorities.

In basic terms, Hampshire College is putting its money where its mouth is, which makes it the only major college in the United States to do so. Whether test-optional schools are motivated by diversity or by rankings, it seems that the move is far likelier to yield improvements in the latter and not so much the former.

If the perception is that the entire testing industrial complex is at the root of an unfair admissions process, than a middling approach like the test-optional policy seems rather a surface-level response. It does nothing to root out the imbalance that is said to motivate it.

The SAT Hostage Crisis

Ironically, even critics of the test-optional policy have few kind words for the SAT/ACT. The nicest thing that most will say is that it may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got. But really, it’s the system that’s got us.

Even if colleges don’t perceive SAT scores as particularly informative predictors of post-secondary student performance, they tell us that there is some predictive capability. This capability, considered along with other factors such as GPA and personal essay, is not without its usefulness.

But this is a sheepish concession with a whole lot of hedging. It does little to explain the singular weightiness that test scores enjoy when it comes to college rankings. Even if individual universities aren’t willing to bow to the test, few have the power to withstand the mighty (and unofficial, it bears noting) ranking system.

This is not to say that U.S. News and World Report is somehow the enemy. It is fair to admit that a universal testing diagnostic is particularly attractive if it’s your job to sort and compare data. Standardized test scores are a lot easier to probe for easy answers than are GPAs earned under widely variant conditions or extra-curricular activities that might run the gamut from mock trial to curling team (Canadian applicants welcome, of course!).

In spite of its messy implications, the standardized test is viewed as among the cleanest ways to size up universities for comparison. But the rise in profile for test-optional admissions policies suggests two things, and neither of them is very good. First, universities have increasingly less confidence that the SAT/ACT testing regime is serving their priorities, either of achieving diversity or recruiting the most excellent students. Second, some universities perceive test scores as an easy avenue through which to game the ranking system.

However you spin this thing, the tests don’t come out looking great. Perhaps, then, it is incumbent upon universities and rankers alike to consider the virtues of blindness. While it may not be reasonable to call for the abolition of standardized college boards (yet), it is not unreasonable to demand parallel ranking systems that stack universities against one another both with and without factoring test scores.

Not only would this free up universities to reject standardized testing entirely without fear of ranking reprisal, it could also help to open up the testing industry to new entrants. Evidence abounds that the SAT/ACT regime needs to be better. Nothing like a little healthy competition to force innovation.

Indeed, today it is the test-blind pioneer like Hampshire or Sarah Lawrence that suffers exclusion. But if they refuse to radically reconsider a set of diagnostics that are both flawed and unfair, it could some day, not far off, be the traditional college boards that are on the outside looking in.

Test Optional Universities: Part 1

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