The Test Optional Alternative

While many parents and students are still wrestling with the interchangeability of the ACT and the SAT; the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) released a study in February 2014 showing there is no perceptible difference in academic performance between students who do and do not submit ACT or SAT scores.

Such a statement almost seems blasphemous in the realm of college admissions, yet the evidence was culled from a study of over 123,000 students across 33 colleges with test optional policies. The colleges were from four different categories: 20 private colleges and universities, 6 public universities, 5 minority serving institutions and 2 art/design schools. Additionally, a number of these test optional colleges are among the most selective colleges in the country including Bowdoin College, Smith College, Wesleyan University-which just this year elected to become test optional, and Wake Forest University (NC).

Two questions served as fundamental guides for the study. Foremost, ‘are college admissions decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores,’ and do standardized tests predict college performance?

The study discovered about 30% of the students who applied to these schools did not submit standardized tests. Other findings also warranted attention:

  1. The cumulative GPA (CGPA) for non-submitters is only .05 lower than submitters
  2. The graduation rate for non-submitters is 0.6% lower than submitters
  3. Non submitters are predominantly from the lowest and highest income groups
  4. Non submitters tend to apply early decision, come from a broad range of ethnic groups, and often attend schools out of state
  5. The best predictor of college performance is high school grades: ‘hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.’

The differences between submitters and non-submitters in CGPA and graduation rates, statistically, are insignificant. However, when a school eliminates the standardized test requirement, while the quality of the student stays virtually the same, it broadens the applicant pool to first generation, non-white, and Pell Grant recipients across the nation.

Joseph Soares, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest, one of the campuses that was part of the surveyed 33 schools in the study, responded to the results of the study: “The study confirms that high school grades remain the best predictor of college grades, and suggest that anyone relying on test scores reduces the breadth of their applicant pool for no good reason.”

Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, has long been test optional. Regardless, Pitzer continues to be one of the most selective colleges in the country. It recently admitted 15% of its 4,100 applicants, making it slightly more selective than Cornell University, Rice, Williams, and Georgetown. Over 60% applied without testing and of those accepted more than 70% never submitted test scores.

Angel Perez, the vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pitzer, comments, “I think we’re getting more students whose SAT scores are phenomenally strong, but who don’t submit for philosophical reasons. I meet students who say that they got 750s across the board but say, ‘That’s not the way I want to be represented.”

Mr. Perez adds, “I can’t remember talking about an SAT score in admissions committee this year. It’s not a point of discussion for us. Even for students who submit, we’ll take a look at it, but we never use it as a predictor of success.”

Test optional might not be for all campuses or all students. In fact test optional schools will review scores if the applicants feel they are critical in evaluating their candidacy. What is more surprising is that without considering whether a student knows what is the tone or main idea of this article (standard SAT fare), colleges are able to identify promising students effectively, while broadening the diversity of their applicant pools, and not compromising academic quality one bit.