Why hundreds of colleges are ditching the SAT and ACT for incoming freshmen


Last month, the University of Delaware decided to make the SAT and ACT an optional part of its admissions requirements.

It’s a move that’s becoming increasingly common among American schools. At last count, more than 850 colleges and universities in the U.S. are now “test optional,” according to an analysis by the non-profit group FairTest. Among the best-known schools that have made the SAT and ACT optional are Wake Forest and NYU. (A partial list of test-optional schools can be found here, and a list by rankings can be found here.)

The goal of dropping the tests, school officials say, is to widen the applicant pool and increase campus diversity. And it seems to be working: George Washington University just announced it had received a record number of applications after dropping the requirement last summer.

“[There was] a significant increase in applications from students who are from underrepresented groups, including African-American, Latino and international students, and first-generation college students,” Laurie Koehler, GW’s vice provost of enrollment management and retention, told USA Today in an email.

Why is dropping testing requirements good for diversity? We already know about racial disparities on standardized tests: the average score on the reading part of the SAT was 429 for black students last year — 99 points below the average for white students.

Two studies published in the Harvard Education Review seem to have confirmed that the SAT and ACT contain biases against minorities. The most recent study, published in 2010, found that black and white students whose educational backgrounds and skill sets suggested they should score similarly still got different results. Specifically, white students got higher scores on easier verbal questions, while black students got higher scores on harder verbal questions.

That confirmed findings from a 2003 paper by research psychologist Roy Freedle, who speculated that cultural expressions that are used commonly in “dominant (white) society” give white students an edge on the language-focused parts of the test, since they are most likely to have grown up hearing the expressions. The harder questions contain less ambiguous words that would likely have only been heard in an academic setting.

“These findings are certainly strong enough to question the validity of SAT verbal scores for African American examinees and consequently admission decisions based exclusively or predominantly on those scores,” the authors of the more recent study wrote.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, has attempted to reform the test to address biases, and is working to make prep resources — another source of disparate outcomes — available at no cost.

“The SAT is rigorously pretested and carefully reviewed to ensure that it is valid and fair for all students, regardless of their gender, race or socio-economic status,” it said in a statement.

The Board also said the test remains a strong predictor of success in first-year college courses, and that it is the strongest predictor when used with grades.

“Eliminating the SAT reduces the accuracy of the prediction, making little sense,” it said.

But the schools that have dropped the requirement are finding no material difference in student outcomes. A 2014 report the National Association for College Admission Counseling looked at 33 schools and found virtually no difference in graduation rates for students who did not submit standardized test scores. They also found non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college enrollees, all categories of minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with learning differences.

“Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply?” the report asked. “At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are out-performing their standardized testing.”

Wake Forest is the highest-ranked national university to have dropped the requirement, having made the decision for its incoming 2009 class.

“If [applicants] feel that the score does not accurately reflect their academic abilities, and they don’t want it included in their application materials, they now have that option,” the school said in a statement at the time.

Other top schools, like Princeton and Harvard, which have eased the financial burden for minority students, confirmed to me that they are holding fast on their testing requirement.

But with 35 schools having dropped the requirement in the past year, FairTest representative Bob Schaeffer told me we are in the midst of a vast national change in testing requirements, led by examples of schools with no testing requirements succeeding at bringing more diversity to their campuses.

“Schools that go test optional end up with more applicants, and a more diverse set of applicants by race and geography,” Schaeffer told me. “It’s a win-win for the school and students.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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