What the SAT-optional Colleges Don’t Tell You
I don’t much like the SAT. When the SAT-optional movement began to gain momentum a few years ago, I cheered. Dozens of colleges told their applicants that if they didn’t want to submit their SAT or ACT scores, they didn’t have to. Some restricted this choice to
students with high grade point averages, but it seemed to me a step in the right direction.
In my view the SAT does not reflect very well what students learn in high school. It seems more influenced by how much money their parents make. Indeed, SAT prep classes (such as those offered by Kaplan Inc., the Washington Post Company’s leading revenue source) give kids from affluent families an advantage.
So I was impressed and pleased when the SAT-Optional movement grew so strong that FairTest (the National Center for Fair & Open Testing), a non-profit group that supports the change, noted that 32 of the top 100 colleges on the U.S. News & World Report liberal arts college list no longer require every applicant to submit an SAT or ACT score.
When I started reading Jonathan P. Epstein’s article on SAT-Optional schools in the summer edition of the Journal of College Admissions, I expected a careful history of these developments, with no surprises. Epstein is a senior consultant with Maguire Associates in Boston, who specialize in advising college admissions offices. He is not a journalist, and sees no need to deliver the big news at the top of the story.
He saved his shocker for the 74th paragraph, which ripped a big hole in my happy assumptions about good guy colleges making the SAT optional. It turns out that many of these schools may not be as unselfish and public-spirited as I thought.
What motivates schools like Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Hamilton and Smith---all SAT optional colleges in the U.S. News liberal arts top 25--to break away from the SAT? Their spokespersons often cite their desire to reach out to otherwise accomplished students who might be test-phobic, and to emphasize personal qualities that cannot be reduced to a score on a 2400 point scale.
Some critics suggested that schools that made the SAT optional might see that as a way to improve their ranks. Students who decided not to submit their SATs or ACTs would presumably have lower scores. If they weren’t counted, that would raise those colleges’ SAT averages, an important part of the U.S. News ranking formula.
No, no, Epstein was told by experts. He heard second-hand that most of those SAT-optional schools were gathering scores from all students after enrollment, including those who did not submit scores for admission, and giving their full and honest SAT average to U.S. News and other organizations that asked for it. He decided to check this out. He contacted the 32 colleges and the organizations they gave their information to.
The result was stunning. Nearly all of them admitted to submitting inflated averages that did not include scores from students who did not submit them during the admissions process. Two refused to comment. Only one of them, Muhlenberg College, reported “a full and honest SAT average, requiring students who took the test to submit scores after enrolling and reporting their SAT average inclusive of those scores,” Epstein said.
This made a significant difference, he discovered. “Publicly available and privately shared data reveal that SAT scores for non-submitters average 100-150 points lower than submitters,” he wrote in his article. “Eliminating those scores for 25 percent to 50 percent of enrolling students results in manufactured SAT average increases between 25 and 75 points. These results imply that 31 of the 32 SAT-optional institutions in question are the beneficiaries of SAT average boosts. In the hyper-competitive space of the U.S. News top 100, there is no way to believe that such an outcome is an accident.”
I asked the sampling of five colleges above to respond to Epstein’s argument. Bowdoin and Bates officials pointed out that raising their U.S. News ranks could not have motivated their decision to go SAT-optional because they decided to do so before the U.S. News rankings came into existence. The other four colleges have not gotten back to me, but I will post their reactions on my Class Struggle blog when they do.
Robert J. Morse, U.S. News' data research director, said "the differences in the levels of test scores reported by schools before and after going test optional are rarely if ever large enough to make any real difference in a school's actual rankings."
Epstein suggests two ways this stealth SAT or ACT score inflation could hurt applicants to these top colleges. First, students who would otherwise be a good fit might be discouraged by the colleges’ higher than expected SAT averages and not apply. Second, the lure of the SAT-optional policy has helped produce a big jump in applications at many of these schools, making them more selective and reducing the chances of gaining admission to the school.
FairTest offers a list of all test-optional schools at|http://www.fairtest.org/university/optionall. I asked Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director, to comment on Epstein’s findings: “Even if schools slightly improve their rankings by not including SAT scores from students who did not submit them, they have far more significant motivations for dropping testing requirements, including a commitment to enhancing intellectual and demographic diversity,” Schaeffer said.
“For example,” he said, “Epstein completely ignores concerns about the impact of test-prep tutors, who claim to boost the scores of applicants whose parents can pay $1,000, $5,000 or more, by 200 to 300 points. How can any admissions officer ever know whether a 700 math score reflects a test-taker’s real skill level or is the result of test-coaching ‘steroids?’
“Most importantly, why does Epstein believe that policies designed to enhance academic quality and equity should be judged based on their impact upon the deeply flawed rankings promoted by one news magazine? The truth is that a growing number of schools are recognizing that test scores do not measure merit. They know that test-optional admissions is better both for students and for their institutions.”
Just where this is going is hard to predict. Epstein notes that Schaeffer is wrong to say that he thinks the SAT optional movement should be judged by its impact on the U.S. News list. Epstein’s article explores many other ramifications of the trend toward less SAT influence on admissions. Some experts, he says, think when Harvard goes SAT-optional the balance will shift dramatically. But Schaeffer himself points out that when Harvard stopped accepting early admissions applications, few other schools followed suit. Most colleges have priorities and problems different from those of the Ivy League. For the moment, the SAT and the ACT add needed order and rationality to their admissions systems, at least in their view.
Epstein suggests other ways out of this tangle of good intentions and administrative demands. One is to follow the daring example of Sarah Lawrence College. It no longer collects SAT or ACT scores from any of its applicants, since that is the only way to ensure that those scores will not affect its admissions decisions.
For that it pays a heavy price. Without an SAT average, Sarah Lawrence’s rank can no longer be calculated by U.S. News. It no longer appears on that list. A college that in 2007 was number 47 on the list of best liberal arts colleges, a high profile spot that most college marketing executives would find impossible to refuse, is nowhere to be found in the most widely read admissions guide in the country.
Click on the comments link below and let me know which solutions to this mess appeal to you. My favorite is the one suggested to Epstein by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and author of “The Big Test,” the best book ever written about the SAT. Instead of making the SAT optional, Lemann says, replace it with a better test. We could have something that actually measures what students have learned in high school and includes many essay sections to gauge analytical skills.
I think the college level tests we give high schoolers now, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge, would serve well as college entrance exams, but I don’t expect anyone to embrace that notion during my lifetime.
The ethics of the SAT Optional movement could use further examination, but few of these colleges--all run by fine people--come out looking great when the competitive stakes are so high. Parents and students looking for answers are going to have to muddle through for a few more years until the situation deteriorates to a point where we do something drastic.
My wife, very active as an alumna interviewer of applicants to her alma mater, thinks we should switch to the computer matching used to place medical school graduates in residency programs. Wouldn’t that be fun? I can think of worse solutions.
Washington Post editors
| July 31, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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