By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hey, high schoolers, scared of bombing on the SATs and not getting into college? Don't worry, a growing number of U.S. schools are scrapping standardized test scores as part of admission.
Washington, D.C.'s George Washington University last month joined more than 850 U.S. colleges and universities that no longer require applicants to take the SAT or ACT, tests that have been a feature of American student life for decades.
Proponents of making the tests optional say the switch can help schools become more diverse and admit students who will thrive even though they may have lagged other applicants on scores.
"It was really about making sure that the right students, students for whom GW would be a great place, were not discouraged from applying," said Karen Stroud Felton, George Washington's dean of admissions.
The test-optional trend has accelerated in recent years, with more than two dozen schools dropping the requirement since the spring of 2014, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which advocates for test-optional admissions. They include Wisconsin's Beloit College and Temple University in Philadelphia.
But defenders of the SAT and ACT tests of math, reading and writing say they level the playing field for applicants and provide an objective measure for scholarships.
Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment at the College Board, the non-profit that administers the SAT, said research had repeatedly shown it was a strong predictor of academic success.
The SAT is relied upon by thousands of U.S. colleges and universities. It also gives low-income and minority students access to higher education by stripping out subjective factors such as grade inflation, she said.
"The bottom line is that more knowledge is better than less, and especially information like the SAT that is captured under comparable conditions for all kids," Schmeiser said.
About 1.7 million students took the SAT in 2014, up almost 60 percent in 20 years, and 1.8 million took the ACT, according to College Board and ACT numbers.
The United States had 3,026 four-year colleges in the 2012-13 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
DROPPING THE TEST
Natalie Casimir, an 18-year-old from Troutman, North Carolina, is among the college students who were helped by the new trend away from test scores.
Even with a high school grade point average of 4.0, she said, her SAT score of 1580 out of 2400 had driven her to despair about getting into college. That score would have put her in the 60th percentile of students taking the SAT in 2013, the College Board said.
"I didn't feel like my SAT scores adequately depicted how I perform as a student, because I did really well in the classroom," Casimir said.
But she applied to North Carolina's Wake Forest, which dropped the standardized test requirement in 2008, and got in. Now she is looking at English and political science as areas of study and sees Wake Forest as home.
"I've absolutely loved it," said Casimir, now a sophomore.
A 2014 study of test-optional admissions involving 123,000 students at 33 schools found no major difference in college grade point averages or graduation rates between those who submitted test scores and those who did not.
William Hiss, the study's main investigator and a former head of admissions at Bates College in Maine, said high school grade point average turns out to be an excellent indicator of college success.
"The fact that they are not a great test taker is maybe the only thing that's out of whack" for strong high school students applying to college, he said.
About 30 percent of students at the schools examined did not submit test scores. They tended to be the first in their families to go to college, minorities, women, from low-income families or recipients of federal Pell Grants, which do not have to be repaid, Hiss said.
Some data raises doubts, however, about whether test-optional admissions boost minority enrollment and diversity.
An analysis for the American Educational Research Association and Sage Publications published last year showed that colleges made no progress in improving diversity after adopting test-optional policies.
But the number of applications went up after schools dropped the test requirements, which also eliminates some of the costs of applying to college. Taking the SAT or ACT can cost up to $56.50 for a U.S. student, and many applicants take the test more than once.
A test-prep industry has also cropped up to coach high schoolers, with IBISWorld market research estimating annual revenue for tutoring and test prep businesses at $9 billion.
The number of test preparation companies soared to 8,777 in 2013 from just under 2,900 in 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. Major test prep companies include Kaplan Inc, a unit of Graham Holdings Co, and Princeton Review, part of IAC/InterActive Corp.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone)