Test Optional: Grad School Challenged

As the discourse regarding college admissions and high-stakes testing evolves, a growing number of colleges are embracing a “test optional” admission process.  Earlier in the year, a research study spearheaded by Bill Hiss, the former Dean of Admissions of Bates College, revealed that Bates students who submit SAT and ACT scores to test optional colleges do not have significantly higher graduation rates or college GPAs than do non-submitters.  This finding will inevitably lead more schools to reconsider requiring testing for admissions.

In perusing the full report and presentation of the study, Defining Promise: Twenty-Five Years of Optional Testing at Bates College, 1984-2009, I came across one finding that was startling yet remarkably absent from all media mentions of this research.  Slide 27 presents data on the Percentage of Alumni holding Masters and Doctoral Degrees by Submitter Status.  The evidence is compelling: non-submitters are disadvantaged at every level of graduate degree attainment.

As 37.9% of students did not submit test scores to Bates between 1985 and 2005, we’d naturally anticipate that roughly 37.9% of graduate degrees would be awarded to these non-submitting students.  However, students who did not submit SAT and ACT scores to Bates were under-represented at every level of graduate degree attainment.  Non-submitting alumni were under-represented by roughly 18% at the Masters level, 28% at the JD level, 35% at the MBA level, 46% at the PhD level and a staggering 68% at the MD level.  Although submitters and non-submitters seemed to be on equal footing for GPA and graduation, they were clearly not on equal footing for graduate school admissions and higher educational attainment.

Graph- SAT Submitter vs non-Submitter

Why would students who do not submit SAT or ACT scores have significantly lower levels of graduate school degree attainment?   In most cases college-bound students who choose to withhold their testing have been unable able to attain competitive scores on the SAT or ACT.   Although the non-submitting students in this study found a path to Bates without testing and managed to succeed academically at Bates, when it came time to conquer the graduate school exams such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT, many of these students apparently struggled.

While a student’s GPA will reveal a good deal about a student’s personal characteristics such as grit, motivation, self-regulation and the ability to delay gratification, in many cases GPA will not provide a great measure of a student’s ability to master a high-stakes test.  The ability to succeed on a high-stakes admission test is more of a reflection of a student’s ability to work quickly, to hold and manipulate information in working memory, to sustain motivation and focus, while regulating anxiety during a high-stakes testing condition.

Although more undergraduate admissions departments are pursuing a test-optional admissions policy, high stakes admissions tests remain the norm in the world of graduate admissions.  With rampant grade inflation in American colleges, college GPA does not provide as useful a measure of comparative ability as it once did; graduate admissions programs rely upon these admissions tests to help select the best candidates.

Students can learn the skills necessary to master high stakes tests either during their high school years—in preparation for SAT and ACT tests—or in preparation for their graduate level entrance exams.  The same skills which confer an advantage on the undergraduate tests likewise confer an advantage upon the graduate level tests: efficient problem solving, optimizing working memory, positive self-talk, anxiety regulation, et al. One benefit of achieving mastery over the undergraduate admissions tests is that students who attain a competitive score on the SAT or ACT will cultivate a greater sense of self-efficacy for testing; this will be an asset when it comes time to prepare for the graduate level admissions tests. By overcoming academic obstacles and self-limiting beliefs regarding testing, students will be able to fully experience the promise of their potential, both in college and beyond.


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