By Lisa Beckelhimer
To ACT or not to ACT, that is the question.
In admission offices around the country, the long-standing method of predicting a high school student’s likelihood for success on the college level is undergoing a bit of Shakespearean questioning. In fact, some offices are doing to standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, what Hamlet debated doing to his uncle—killing them. Nearly 400 colleges and universities have dropped standardized test scores from their admission processes or made them optional for high-achieving students. And there’s an ongoing push to get the rest of the country’s higher education institutions to join the movement.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) is behind the effort, urging colleges and universities to put less emphasis on standardized test scores and more on other factors, such as essays, course rigor and grades. It’s an argument many are buying into.
“The institutions that have dropped the tests or made them optional represent a sizeable movement within admission offices around the nation, as many schools realize that such tests are not needed for sound admission practices,” says Christina Perez, a reform advocate for FairTest.
Many of the nearly 400 schools on its list are public institutions, where admission requirements are less stringent, but there are also highly selective private colleges on the list, such as Mount Holyoke and Middlebury, and other schools that specialize in areas such as art or religion.
“Mount Holyoke believes the SAT is a narrow measure of a student’s academic ability, and therefore it’s used in the context of the rest of the student’s application, if at all,” says Sara Schick, associate director of admission at the prestigious Massachusetts liberal arts college for women. “Requiring standardized test scores is inconsistent with our institutional philosophy and values. We take an individualized, holistic approach to education and the admission process.”
Many others, including Xavier, still require the scores. At Xavier, though, the tests are only viewed as one of many criteria.
“This is literally just one of the factors we consider when we make our decision,” says Marc Camille, dean of admission. “By no means is it the most important criterion.”
Students who apply to Xavier submit their test scores, a high school transcript, an essay, a recommendation from a guidance counselor and the application form itself, which includes an extensive profile of extracurricular activities.
“If we were simply taking a test score and a grade point average and letting the computer spit out a formula,” says Camille, “I would feel uncomfortable about using the score at all. But we have people reading every application and giving each student a fair chance. We pride ourselves on offering a personalized and individualized education, so it’s our responsibility to make the admission process that way as well.”
Other schools are also finding new ways to make standardized test scores meet their institution’s needs. Eastern Kentucky University, which draws students from the state’s rural areas, uses a tiered admission policy. Applicants who score an 18 (of 36) on the ACT or equivalent on the SAT are fully admitted. Those with at least a 15 can be admitted and placed into remedial courses, while those who score 14 or below are admitted only after enrolling in a special student retention program to meet their academic needs.
“We also use the ACT scores in the academic advising area to place students into remedial courses in English, math and reading,” says Tricia McWilliams, an admission counselor at EKU. Students who score below 18 on the ACT are required to take placement tests developed by the university to prove their proficiency in subjects.
At Iowa State University, in-state students who rank in the upper half of their high school class are automatically admitted, regardless of their test scores. Applicants to public universities in Texas don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores if they finish in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
Admittedly, the issue can become more dicey at private institutions, where competition for admission is often steep. “The problem is that at too many highly selective colleges, the test has become a primary sorter, and it never was intended to be that,” says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment, student life and college relations at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
So why use a standardized test score at all?
“Unlike high school GPA or class rank, ACT and SAT scores allow us to compare all applicants on an equal basis,” says Phil Caffrey, associate director of admission at Iowa State. “High schools vary a lot in how they grade and rank their students. These factors are controlled for you when you look at ACT and SAT scores.”
That issue opens another can of worms for admission counselors—the fairness of standardized tests. FairTest points out that while females earned higher grades in high school and college in 2000, their SAT scores were, on average, 38 points lower than males. Even a 1994 study by the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, found that males scored 33 points higher on the SAT math section than females who earn the same grades in the same college math courses.
African-American, Latino and Asian immigrant test takers typically score significantly lower than white students.
The timed nature of the exams can also impose a huge burden on students for whom English is not their first language. Rigid use of test scores in the admission process usually produces freshman classes with few minorities.
“It’s a very legitimate argument,” says Xavier’s Camille. “If we receive an application from a student with a non-native language or a student of color or a student who grew up in a very rural area, and the test scores are low yet high school grades and a quality curriculum are there, I have no trouble admitting that student. The argument has been supported there are some biases and flaws with the tests.”
Admission experts at schools on FairTest’s list, plus many others, agree that class rank, high school grades and rigor of classes taken are better tools for predicting college success than standardized tests. Scores are used only to confirm what admission counselors already believe, says Paul Deutsch, Kent State University’s director of admission. They’re used at Iowa State, says Caffrey, to help students gain admission, “not to prevent them from being admitted.”
At Xavier, “We place the greatest emphasis on the quality and rigor of the curriculum students completed in high school,” says Camille. “Did the student pursue the most challenging curriculum available to them? We are going to look at ACT or SAT results, but that’s just one factor we look at.”