Standardized exams are meaningless. That’s right, I said it. For years, we have been trained to believe that standardized exams like the SAT and ACT scores have predictive power in terms of academic success. We pay hundreds of dollars to take these standardized exams, possibly get a prep book or take an expensive prep class. We then spend a couple of hours on a Saturday morning answering questions that deal with analogies, sentence completions and middle school math. I can’t help but think there was some political reason for having this test; after all, there must be millions of dollars that go into it. The interesting thing, however, is that admissions departments may be veering away from the traditional system of requiring students to submit scores from standardized exams for college applications.
The dean of admissions at Wake Forest University, Martha Allman, recently posted a piece in the Washington Post about their change of heart regarding standardized tests. In the summer of 2008, Wake Forest made the decision to become test-optional beginning with the entering class of 2009. As chronicled in Joseph Soares’ new book, “SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional Admissions,” the admissions officers approached the change as “excited and scared.” Fast-forward to fall 2011 and the officers are still excited, but no longer scared.
Why would schools be scared to do such a change? There is the fear that making standardized exams optional would lower the quality of students and affect attrition.
Fortunately for Wake Forest, they found the opposite to be true.
Allman reports that for the past three years, the percentage of enrolling freshmen graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school classes has increased from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Students of color comprised 16 percent of the freshman class of 2008 and 22 percent in 2011. Enrolled Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Standardized test “non-submitters” are performing in the classroom on par with their counterparts who submitted scores for consideration and attrition is no different between submitters and non-submitters.
Wake Forest has succeeded in striking a chord with students (such as me when I was a student) who champion the idea that student achievement should be judged in context and over an entire high school career, not just by performance on a single test.
This, of course, does put more of a workload on the admissions committee. After all, using standardized exam scores is somewhat of a “cop-out” in their line of work.
Allman writes that applications require more writing from the applicants and thus more reading from admissions officers. “We have instituted a personal interview component (conducted via Skype for those who can’t make it to campus) and in this year’s freshman class, 75 percent of our students were interviewed. We have challenged ourselves to evaluate transcripts and secondary schools more critically and have learned more about the International Baccalaureate program, charter schools and Early College programs,” she tells us in the article.
Despite the more work for admissions, there is a greater sense of accomplishment and it had become more rewarding for them.
It is important to consider the lack of importance of exams like the SAT because of what power these tests are still giving, perhaps unfairly, students across the country.
For example, Seton Hall, a private Catholic university in New Jersey, is discounting their tuition by 60% for students who not only are in the top 10% of their high school class, but also must achieve certain SAT or ACT scores. Clearly if you got phenomenal grades in high school but only average on the standardized tests, you would end up paying thousands of more dollars for that education—and it is possible you are a better student than the ones actually getting the discount! The total tuition and fees is $12,154 (beginning in fall 2012). If a student doesn’t qualify for the program, they will pay roughly $33,500 in tuition and fees.
Perhaps Wake Forest is on to something big, and we no longer will need to feed into this standardized exams business. SAT makers won’t be happy, but students will finally be able to focus on more productive aspects of life, such as learning. Who knows, maybe colleges will start using a test-optional policy as a selling point? Now that would be interesting.