Test Optional and Test Flexible

As the theme of the Association for College Counselors of Independent Schools (ACCIS) conference was testing, two of the presenters were there to question the emphasis on testing and argue for alternative admission policies. One session was led by Joseph Soares, researcher and Associate Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University. Soares, author of The Power of Privilege, was a vocal proponent of Wake Forest’s decision to go test optional in 2009. The other session was led by Bob Schaeffer, the driving force behind FairTest. Schaeffer has been working for decades to help American colleges and universities wean themselves off their “addiction” to high stakes admissions tests. Though Bob Schaeffer told me they had not coordinated their efforts, Soares and Schaeffer delivered a well orchestrated critique of testing and its role in the admissions process.

Joseph Soares

Soares’ primary argument was that the tests assess social factors, rather than academic ones. By emphasizing the SAT and ACT, colleges are selecting students who are on the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum. They are selecting for money, rather than for merit. Soares calls this Social Darwinism.

He also challenged the College Board’s claims that using the SAT in the admissions equation helps a school like Wake Forest select a more academically robust class. According to Soares’ data, by adding the SAT to the admissions algorithm, WFU picked up a mere 3% bump in predictive strength (the ability to select who will succeed academically). As a result of his findings, Soares pushed hard for Wake Forest to go test optional, and his voice was heard in 2009. He continues to play a vocal role on the national stage and exhorts other schools to follow Wake Forest’s lead.

Bob Shaeffer

Schaeffer has a long history with the SAT. Already working with FairTest for more than a decade, by the late 1990’s it was Schaeffer’s turn to go through the admissions gauntlet as a father. Because he “knew that good coaching programs could significantly boost SAT performance and that higher scores could lead to “merit” scholarships,” Schaeffer enrolled his own son in a test prep course. Following the $695 prep course, his son picked up over 100 points on the SAT and was offered merit scholarships to the tune of $3,000/year. Spend $700. Get $12,000. Who in their right mind would pass up this deal? But the fact that money could buy points and eventually acceptances and scholarships vexed Schaeffer. How was this fair to those who lacked the means and the money and the opportunity to prep? Even after his son’s experience, the concerned Schaeffer continued to invest his energies and talents in FairTest to see if he could change this system.

Schaeffer’s primary message to the counselors was that change is coming, but it will continue to come gradually. Each year new schools are jumping on the test-flexible and test-optional bandwagon. Marist College recently became the 844th 4-year college to join the ranks of George Mason, Wake Forest, Suwannee, Smith, Rollins and other test-optional schools. According to FairTest, one third of all 4-year colleges are SAT optional. Of the most selective 110 schools, 35 are test optional. As WFU has demonstrated, schools that go test-optional ratchet up applications and attract more minority students. Colleges and universities concerned about their application numbers or campus diversity may be eyeing test optional as a means to address these issues.

In addition to test-optional admissions, Schaeffer spent a good deal of time exploring the latest trend in testing: test choice or test flexible admissions. Colleges and universities are now offering students a menu of testing options: a smorgasbord of testing.

Test Choice

Colorado College is following this trend. Its admissions office requires 1 quantitative test score (from the SAT or ACT); 1 verbal test score (SAT or ACT) and 1 subject score (SAT subject/ACT/ or AP). You can check out the menu online.

Georgia Tech also offers students the possibility to super-super score their tests, taking the highest math section score from any SAT or ACT, the highest writing section score from any SAT or ACT, and the highest English score from the ACT or the highest reading score from the SAT.

Other schools like American University are exploring the test optional continuum. In 2009 American University was test optional exclusively for early decision applicants. In 2010, American changed its policy and will now accept test optional admissions for any students who apply before November 1st . Schaeffer cites this as progress and feels that as schools dip their toes into the test-optional pool, they will be encouraged to eventually take the full plunge.

The Future of Testing

The testing landscape will continue to change from year to year, and more schools will hop on the test- flexible-test-optional bandwagon. Schaeffer noted the “echo effect” among schools. When a selective college or university goes test optional or test flexible, it puts pressure on the schools in its competitive set to do the same. More flexibility in testing will ultimately help our students. There will be less rigidity and more opportunities for them to succeed. Will testing go away completely? Schaeffer doesn’t think so, and certainly not in the near term. But he challenges the misuse and abuse of testing and will continue to fight for an admissions landscape that is not myopically focused on testing.


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  • P Moore

    Mr . Soares only telling part of the truth about applying to “test- optional” Wake Forest. If I remember correctly, in order to be considered for scholarships, test scores (SAT) are required.
    P Moore

  • robert

    admissions allows this to be test optional – still over 90% of WFU applicants are going to submit scores because these students are good students and if you do well are going to share your numbers, and schools want and NEED this info for rankings (there may be some fine print to submit board scores AFTER acceptance, after all, how could WFU and others substantiate that these have no predictive merit if we don’t know what students that were admitted, matriculate, and graduate submitted scores or not??)…what would US News, Moody’s, etc, do to a schools rank if standardized exams were completely removed as a schools metric?? Allowing students some latitude to create their portfolio by including or excluding board scores to put themselves in the best possible light is a good thing, and if the school is willing to hire more counselors to meet students because they exclude board scores, then so be it. in the end, the Board of Trustees at WFU and others will want to know that students accepted are going to honor tried traditions, and if student bodies and classes go down a different path, scores and other metrics will certainly be reinstated and required. And Dr. Soares is a Harvard grad, I would love to hear his response about how they boast, or is it justify their 8% acceptance rate like the other ivy schools…those are not admissions offices, they are non-admissions offices.