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Trends in Admission Testing: Inside Information from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (Part 3)

Spotlight on the SAT and the ACT

The ACT is on the rise. Attending the National Association for College Admission Counseling annual meeting in Maryland, I could clearly see that the SAT is continuing to lose ground to its longstanding rival. During a well attended session, SAT Test Prep: Sharing What Works, as soon as one college counselor mentioned the success his students were having prepping for the ACT, heads began nodding in agreement throughout the auditorium. More and more schools, college counselors, educational consultants and tutors are shifting their energies toward this alternative to the SAT.

People love to attack the SAT, which has become a magnet for controversy. Over the years, the SAT has been blamed for many of the ills, shortcomings and inequities of the US educational system. In my research I have found dozens of critiques and analyses of the SAT, exploring its biases, lack of predictive strength and various other failings, whereas critiques of the ACT are conspicuously rare. Most educational researchers have chosen to overlook the ACT, which in turn has benefitted from the relative lack of public scrutiny.  The few researchers who have examined the ACT in the same light as the SAT have discovered that the ACT is not a corrective for the SAT; the ACT shares many of its flaws, privileging the same groups and creating the same social, racial and economic divisions as the SAT.

One area where the ACT differs from the SAT is its lack of focus on vocabulary.  Students who are voracious readers will have an edge on the SAT and be familiar with many of the challenging words assessed on that test.  Because the ACT does not assess vocabulary, certain student populations will perform better on that assessment.  During the session at NACAC  numerous high school counselors asserted that for many of their students, particularly those who were not great readers, and frequently for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, their strengths were more clearly revealed by the ACT than by the SAT. Numerous NACAC participants critiqued the fairness and validity of the SAT.  One of the panel members argued that the SAT is moving farther away from high school math content toward purely psychometric questions, more frequently found on IQ tests than on achievement tests. For the more recent SATs, students will stare at particular problems and ask, “Where is the math?” For many of the questions the answer seems to be: “Not there.”

According to this participant, SAT test writers focus their energy on setting logic and assumption-based traps that students are hard-pressed to avoid. In order to teach to this kind of test, mastery of the content is insufficient: what matters here is an understanding of the kind of manipulation that is taking place by the test writers and an understanding of how these questions are constructed. In contrast, preparing students for the ACT involves increasing test familiarity, teaching basic strategy, speed, and using lots of repetition and practice.

A world without the SAT

There are those who believe that the shortcomings of the SAT and ACT warrant discarding these tests as admission tools. At a NACAC session entitled Implementing Test-Optional Admission, admissions officers from some of the most prestigious SAT/ACT optional schools described their experiences of conducting college admissions without requiring SAT or ACT scores.

Martha Allman, head of admissions at Wake Forest, the most prestigious school in the country to adopt an SAT/ACT optional policy, was one of the panelists. Andrew Flagel from George Mason University, Kristen Tichenor from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Robert Schaeffer from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing rounded out the panel.

Wake Forest’s decision to drop the SAT/ACT requirement made waves last year, just as Harvard and Princeton’s decision to drop Early Decision made waves in 2006. But neither move has inspired a revolution in the world of admissions, nor inspired a mass of followers. Just as Early Decision makes life easier for admissions officers, the SAT and the ACT are useful tools for admissions officers grappling with the challenge of processing tens of thousands of applications from students across the country. Many admissions officers struggle philosophically with the admissions culture created by the SAT and ACT tests, but few are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to go “test optional”.

If it is so much more work, why go test optional at all? One of the primary motives is to increase student diversity. It is no secret that students of different racial backgrounds perform differently on the SAT and ACT. In  2009 the mean SAT score of Asian American students was1623(out of 2400), 1581 for white students, 1364 for Hispanic students , and 1276 for African American students.  On the ACT the mean score for Asian Americans students was 23.2, 22.2 for white students, 18.7 for Hispanic students and 16.9 for African American students. These are very significant differences and provide a challenge to universities who use the SAT and ACT to compare students and are committed to creating a diverse student population.

In addition to increasing diversity, there are other reasons to go test-optional. If we get rid of the SAT and ACT, students have one less thing to worry about during their junior and senior years, allowing them to focus more on their high school academics. And if we get rid of the SAT and ACT, we may take a step towards greater equity in college admissions. As most SAT and ACT critics note, SAT and ACT scores correlate very strongly with family income. The SAT and the ACT are very useful predictors of affluence, and by using these admission tools, we could be furthering the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Schools like Wake Forest and George Mason and Smith College have decided to opt out of the current system and make submission of SAT and ACT scores optional.  FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, lists all of the 775+ four-year colleges and universities that have an SAT/ACT optional policy.

During the NACAC session, Andrew Flagel of George Mason University stated that he has nothing against the SAT and ACT and actually finds these tools extremely useful for many students. However, after analyzing GMU student data, GMU researchers found that the SAT and ACT are not useful predictors for all applicants. For students with cumulative high school GPAs ranging from 3.0 to 3.6, the SAT and ACT are useful predictors of performance. But as student GPAs reach the 3.7 to 3.8 range, SAT and ACT scores begin to lose statistical significance and are no longer useful predictors of performance at GMU. For students with the highest high school GPAs, there is actually a negative correlation between test scores and college performance. If students do incredibly well in high school, SAT and ACT scores add little useful information for admissions officers.

When asked about the impact at GMU of implementing a test score-optional admissions policy, Flagel admitted that after 2 years of the policy, there’s been no radical change in the campus or the student population; the changes so far have primarily been of symbolic value. In 2007, 4.5% of students applied score optional and of those, 25% were admitted. In 2008, 8.5% of students applied score optional and 65% were admitted. In 2009 13% applied score optional, and Flagel was waiting to release the admit numbers. Slowly and surely, however, the number of students applying without scores has been increasing as has the quality of the applicants. When asked about the changes in the admissions department, Flagel admitted that reading time and time spent in committee have clearly increased, and all the staff have had to increase their workload. But for now, the admissions staff at GMU feel it’s worth the extra time and energy to keep the new policy in place.

Kristen Tichenor shared her experiences with test-optional admissions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. By removing the SAT and ACT requirement, the focus has shifted away from test scores toward high school course selection and grade trends. Many WPI students have opted to take the “flex-path” in which they submit something in lieu of test scores to demonstrate their abilities and readiness for college. Many of the alternate submission candidates have sent in wildly creative “flex-path” projects.

As a result of the new test optional admissions policy, WPI applications are way up. International applications have increased 44%, and minority applications have increased 40%. Female enrollment is up 38%, international enrollment is up 55%, minority enrollment is up 70%, and minority female enrollment is up 100%. The admissions office at WPI is very excited by the better yields among its target population. According to Tichenor, going test optional has dramatically changed the student composition and the feel of the campus at WPI.

Like Tichenor, Martha Allman from Wake Forest University believes going test-optional can transform a campus. Allman stated that the class of 2009 was the most diverse in WFU’s history. With its national profile and top-30 US News ranking, when Wake went test-optional, applications jumped 70%. In lieu of SATs or ACTs, all students must now undergo a 20-30 minute interview, often conducted via Skype or related technologies. To handle the rising workload, Wake has had to add 3 additional admissions staff, and the workload for each of the admissions officers has increased. Likewise the admissions office at WPI has had to hire additional employees. GMU has managed with its current staff, but Flagel admits that everyone is working harder.

The accounts of Flagel, Tichenor and Allman convey the impression that SAT/ACT optional will bring greater diversity but at a cost. Are admissions offices willing to pay the cost or will they stick with the status quo? If the Ivy League banded together and decided to collectively abandon their SAT and ACT requirements, things could change quickly. But I can hardly imagine this occurring. The acceptance rates at most Ivy League schools are at or near the single digits. To process the volume of applications they generate without the aid of the SAT/ACT would be a daunting task. Reading time for the admissions reps would skyrocket and the admissions departments would need to significantly expand their staff. Most schools do not have the luxury to go SAT/ACT optional. In time, this may come to pass, or we may see the rise of a new and better assessment, but in the short term, we will likely continue to function in the world of the SAT and ACT.

Why aren’t more schools going SAT optional?

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we got rid of the SAT and ACT? Why aren’t more colleges following the lead of schools like Smith, Wake Forest and George Mason? Simply put, it comes down to managing limited resources. Going test-optional makes the job of the admissions officers significantly more challenging. Wading through tens of thousands of applications is no cup of tea. Many admissions departments index students using high school GPA and the SAT/ACT to make quick and efficient cuts before diving deeper into their pile of applications. If we drop the assessments, admissions officers will have to spend more time, energy and resources to process their students’ applications. And without the additional information provided by the SAT or ACT, admissions officers may have new challenges.

If we strip away the SAT and ACT, college admissions officers may have a harder time differentiating the strength of students from a geographically diverse population. They will be forced to rely more on high school GPA and schedule strength, which are far from standardized. A 3.2 GPA from one high school means something drastically different from a 3.2 at another school, even one down the street. Does every admissions department have the resources to distinguish the quality of the 27,000+ public high schools and the thousands of private high schools in the country? When evaluating students from across the country, the SAT and the ACT simplify these comparisons.

How would admissions officers deal with the increasing trend of grade inflation? As the cost of education rises and the importance of scholarships such as Georgia’s Hope Scholarship increases, parents are less willing to accept a C, which may threaten their child’s chances of attaining a scholarship. Educators are frequently yielding to these zealous parents, and in particular student populations, Cs are becoming fewer and farther between. In these cases, the SAT and the ACT, which do not yield to parental pressure, serve as a hedge against grade inflation.

Additionally, today’s admissions departments have to deal with an ever-increasing tide of applications. Colleges are trying to be “everything to everyone” and are positioning themselves in such a way as to drive in as many applications as possible. Driving up the number of applications helps a college pick from a wider applicant pool and increase its selectivity ranking and its overall ranking in the world of the US News and World Reports collegiate rankings. Consumers are innately drawn to scarcity and the perception of exclusivity. If a college can drive its acceptance rate down into the single digits, as many of the Ivies have in the last couple of years, this will attract even more applicants and increase the warm feelings and hopefully loosen the purse strings of its alumni base. With so many compelling reasons to drive in more applications, admission departments have been pounding the pavement like never before.

Once they stir up all of these new applications, admissions departments must then deal with them. Colleges could double their admissions staff and add on many new readers, or they could simply limit their “deep reading” of applications to the most competitive of the bunch. And this is what many admissions departments do. They index their students according to GPA and test-scores and do deep reads of the more competitive students.

Though there are multiple components of an application, most admissions departments have a sequence in which they process an application. GPA, in the context of schedule strength, comes first and foremost. If a student struggles with high school academics, how will they handle the rigors of college academics? If the GPA and schedule pass muster, most schools move to the assessments. Many schools create a multiplier to index students by SAT/ACT (occasionally SAT subject tests for more competitive schools) and GPA. If the grades and assessments are in the accepted range for a college or university, then they move to the third category which includes the qualitative components of an application: college essays, recommendations, involvement, leadership and demonstrated interest.

Many students with poor SAT/ACT scores never make it to the third category that contains the qualitative components of the application. They are never given the deep read, their chance to overcome their lower test-scores with their outstanding activities, leadership, or essays. If we eliminate the SAT or ACT component, this will give many students, those who shine in areas other than standardized testing, a much better chance of being admitted.

But in the current system, if two students apply to a competitive university, one with a 3.6 GPA and a 1720 SAT and another student with a 3.6 and a 2150, most schools will admit the student with the 3.6 – 2150. In a world where median SAT and ACT scores contribute to a school’s ranking, it’s in a school’s interest to go with the higher SAT/ACT score.

Whether or not they are a perfect admissions tool, standardized tests are useful, and it’s no accident that a culture of standardized testing is nearly universal. Most developed countries have their equivalent of the SAT/ACT: China has the Gaokao, Japan has a series of high-stakes college entrance exams, European countries have the Baccalaureate, etc,. Nearly all graduate schools have some form of assessment to help them select a class: the LSAT, DAT, MCAT, GRE and GMAT to name a few. Standardized tests allow admissions officers to quickly compare students and make efficient decisions.


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  • Cynthia

    This was very helpful, and I appreciate your having presented arguments on both sides of the debate.

  • Joan M

    A couple of comments:
    One item not mentioned in ACT – SAT discussion: Schools do not uniformly “super score” the ACT whereaas that is SOP for SATs (only a couple of exceptions). Did you pick up on any discussion on this?

    The inverse relationship at George Mason U (test scores not as predictive of success above 3.7) perhaps not as surprising bc possibly reflecting a home bound/captive admissions group?

    Would appreciate your response re ACT superscoring. Thanks, Joan JTMonland@aol.com