Parents, high school students, and college counselors, listen up. I’ve got good news about those dreaded and bank-account-draining college admission tests and test prep programs.
What, you say? Good news in this landscape of worry? Worrying about getting in, about paying the ever-inflating college tuition, about whether the kid will be employable after the huge investments of time and money, and the accumulation of debt. Somewhere in that landscape is the worry about the SATs and ACTs. To prep or not to prep, which test to take and how many times to take it. Will the scores mean the college of the kid’s dreams is out of the question? I can’t erase all these worries, but I can certainly take the edge off.
Here’s how. There are now more than 800 accredited, bachelor degree-granting U.S. colleges and universities that do not require applicants to submit test scores. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) has a complete, searchable online list of these schools here. Nearly 150 colleges and universities on this list rank in the top tier of their respective academic categories. The number of test-optional institutions soared after the latest revision of the SAT and ACT in 2005, with 80 schools joining the list in the past several years.
I work for FairTest, but as the Hair Club for Men guy says, I’m also a customer. When my older son was in high school, I could feel the tension rising in PTO meetings as parents asked when to register for admission tests, what to take, how many times to take them, what was the cost of a good prep class or tutor. But my blood pressure stayed low. I knew that my son had a long list of great schools to consider that didn’t require him to submit scores. I always raised my hand to share this information with other parents, who were often surprised and happy to hear it.
What I didn’t know until later was how the test-optional list was going to help my son identify schools that share his (and my own) values about education. By choosing to become SAT- and ACT-optional, these colleges show that they recognize how little test results tell them about individual students’ high school achievements and potential for college success. By looking beyond test scores, they show that they want to look carefully and thoughtfully at the whole student: the courses they take, their grades, their activities and interests, their essay, and samples of the work they have done. In the end, the optional schools say they get a stronger and more diverse student body.
Bates College has been SAT- and ACT-optional for more than two decades and has studied how their policy has affected their student body. They concluded that there has been no meaningful difference in academic performance between score submitters and non-submitters. What’s more, the policy has allowed the school to increase diversity and has attracted students who choose to major in fields that require creativity and originality.
In 2004, Bates Vice President William Hiss presented the results of research into the policy at a college admissions counseling conference. He said, “The difference is five hundredths of a GPA point and one-tenth of one percent in graduation rates. On this we hang the national sluice gate system about who gets into college and where they go?”
Bates and other colleges see clear benefits. For students, there’s the benefit of finding a school that is much more likely to be a good fit than one that simply chooses students by the numbers.
That’s exactly what happened for my son, a creative, theater-loving, math-phobic, studious yet fun-loving guy who tended to underperform on standardized tests. The optional-list schools he applied to looked at all of his strengths and didn’t penalize him for his weaknesses. He’s now working hard, doing theater, and enjoying his sophomore year at an extraordinary college.
I’ve still got all the other angst, but as we embark on the college search process a second time, I’m glad to be able to cross worries about admission tests off my list.
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Lisa Guisbond is an Assessment Reform Analyst at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). After many years as a writer and editor, Lisa became interested in education policy as a public school parent with an interest in special education. She is Vice President of Citizens for Public Schools and is the principal author of NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure? and the Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child. She co-authored Failing Our Children: How 'No Child Left Behind' Undermines Quality and Equity in Education. Her writing on education and assessment has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Education Week and The New York Times.