October 31, 2007

Colleges Re-evaluate SAT

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The SAT has long been considered an academic rite of passage: a four-hour educational interrogation later distilled into a four-digit summation of test-taking prowess. However, recent changes in admissions policies at a growing number of colleges are increasingly sparing students from this longstanding tradition, allowing them instead to take advantage of newly-offered “score optional” policies.
Providence College, George Mason University and Union College are among a growing number of schools offering “score-optional” admissions policies that allow applicants the opportunity to be evaluated for admission without consideration of their standardized test scores. Coupled with another year of reported SAT score declines, and increasing information suggesting a correlation between wealth and SAT scores, this change in admissions policies indicates a departure from a focus on numbers to an emphasis on holistic review of applicants.
George Mason University began offering “score-optional consideration” to qualified applicants last fall. To be eligible for score-optional review, applicants must have a minimum 3.5 high school GPA and be ranked in the top 20 percent of their graduating class. Andrew Flagel, assistant vice president for enrollment development and dean of admissions at GMU, said that the decision to implement the new policy was motivated by “very consistent results over a three year period showing that for students with rigorous high school courses and strong grade point averages, SAT scores did not add any statistical significance to prediction of grades at Mason.”
Flagel reports that since score-optional review became available, four percent of applicants have selected to apply without including their test scores; overall applications to the university increased by 24 percent.
Providence College has seen a similar increase in applications, reporting an 11 percent increase in overall applications. Providence’s test-optional admissions policy, which is in effect as a four-year pilot program, began with the class of 2011.
Christopher Lydon, associate vice president and dean of admissions of Providence College, said, “there were two issues at play [in Providence’s decision to implement a test-optional policy]: the first is that Providence conducts a holistic review for admission, emphasizing classroom performance more than test scores. If we made the test optional, it would be in essence putting our money where our mouth is.”
The other motivating factor, Lydon said “was philosophical, mission-related” as “Providence was founded as an institution to serve the immigration population of the early 20th century.” The school was also concerned that “low” SAT scores could discourage potential applicants.
“Even if we publish a middle fifty percent on our test-score range, if a student felt their test scores made them less competitive, they may choose not to apply to Providence … students were stepping out before we had time to accurately evaluate them,” says Lydon.
While many colleges have begun to de-emphasize the SAT, the test has suffered declining scores and increased competition from the ACT.
Recently released data from College Board shows a one-point drop in reading and a three-point drop in math scores since last year. This decline continues the downward trend as last year’s five-point drop in reading scores was the largest decline since 1975. The College Board has under-emphasized the importance of these score declines, focusing instead on the growing diversity of SAT takers in 2007: 39 percent of who were minority students.
Amidst the budding diversity of the SAT-takers, score disparities still exist. The scores of Asian students increased by an average of five points, and there was a 69-point disparity between the average reading scores of black students and those of all other test-takers. There was also a relationship between students’ wealth and their SAT scores as students from families in the highest income bracket ($100,000 and over) scored, on average, 300 points higher than their counterparts in the lowest (less than $10,000) income bracket.
According to Inside HigherEd, the correlation is not new.
Of the recent increase in schools offering test-optional policies, Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside HigherEd, said, “a lot of reevaluation going on … primarily in liberal arts colleges smaller than Cornell. It’s easier to do without the SAT if you’re at a relatively small college.” He added that “no one at a Cornell level” has implemented a test-optional policy.
While Cornell gets 30,000 applicants each year, it still requires standardized test scores as part of its application.
“The admissions staff at Cornell recognizes that SAT and ACT scores are only one of many factors we consider when we assess a student’s application for admission,” says Doris Davis, associate provost of admissions and enrollment. “We know that SAT scores are lower for students whose families are from more modest economic backgrounds, and we also know that a student’s SAT score may vary based on other personal circumstances.”
Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 agrees. “SATs are just one element… we’re looking for excellent, well-rounded students,” he said. He noted that significant progress has been made since his student experience at Cornell: “when I was a student [at Cornell in the sixties], we all had the distinct impression that the SATs were the most important element.”
“I like that we take each individual application, as much as it is feasible, and look at it in its own right. We don’t fall victim to some sort of formulaic arrangement,” says Hubbell, adding that “the stakes get higher every year, it seems.”
While Cornell seems unlikely to adopt a test-optional policy, changing views of the SAT are likely: “probably we wouldn’t dispense with [the SAT] entirely,” says Hubbell, “but we might weigh it differently as we know more about how it does and does not indicate ability, talent, and achievement.”
What remains prevalent is an increasing focus on selecting students, not scores: “as we’ve become more selective I think we’ve been able to create a community of students that’s more high-achieving,” Hubbell says.