For years, high school juniors and seniors have fretted over taking the hourslong SAT, a rite of passage long considered a prerequisite for getting into college.

Now, an increasing number of schools are eliminating that anxiety by no longer considering standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT when evaluating students for admission.

For the 2018-19 school year, Hanover College in Southern Indiana will join nearly one thousand public and private accredited institutions across the nation that have opted for a “test optional” or “test flexible” admissions policy.

Hanover will be Indiana’s ninth higher education institution with such a policy. Other schools include Vincennes University, Earlham College and Martin University.

“We do not see a strong correlation between standardized test scores and a student’s ability to persist in the class,” said Jon Riester, Hanover’s vice president for enrollment management.

Like Hanover, many of the colleges argue that standardized test scores don’t adequately reflect the effort or perseverance of individual students. And the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit that advocates against standardized testing, says students from low-income families don’t have the means to pay for test prep classes or tutors that help more well-heeled students boost scores.

Riester said SAT and ACT tests carry a socioeconomic bias. Internal data at Hanover show a strong correlation between household income and performance on standardized testing, he said.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, says research shows the test is a valid predictor of college outcomes, including grade-point average, retention and completion. High school grades, however, aren’t objective measures, the board argues, because they are subject to variables such as school demographics, teacher discretion and state and district standards.

Today, more than 960 accredited colleges and universities awarding bachelor’s degrees don’t use the scores for admission decisions for some or all students, according to a list compiled by FairTest.

The College Board notes the majority of those schools are for-profit schools, special focus schools and two-year or certificate schools.

The test-optional schools can have different methods to assess standardized testing scores. Some, such as Hanover, will not require them at all. Others opt to use scores as a guide for a student placement or academic advising, and some may require scores, but only consider scores when an applicant does not meet a minimum GPA or class rank.

The scores also can be used only for selected programs at an institution. College level exams, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, may also be used in lieu of standardized testing, a policy called “test-flexible.”

Riester said after seeing a stronger correlation between household income and performance of standardized testing, Hanover wanted to takes steps to make sure to offer admission for all students across the socioeconomic spectrum, he said.

“The curriculum of students enrolled in high school and their high school grade-point average were much stronger predictions of student retention and performance,” Riester said.

Bob Schaeffer, FairTest public education director, said the list has grown by almost 100 schools over the past four years. It includes more than 275 institutions that rank in the top tiers of their respective categories by US News & World Report, he said.

Hanover, for example, is a private liberal arts institution with 1,133 students and is ranked 122 in the 2017 edition of National Liberal Arts Colleges.

“(Schools) increasingly recognize that standardized tests keep out many otherwise qualified applicants, particularly students from historically disenfranchised groups,” he said.

Wealthy families can spend thousands of dollars on private tutors and expensive one-on-one test practices to boost an applicant’s score without making them better students, he added.

Bigger universities with tens of thousands of students often see it differently.

Pamela Horne, vice provost for enrollment manager at Purdue University, said SAT or ACT test scores offer a “common yardstick” for a school that enrolls more than 40,000 students and receives applications from up to 5,000 high schools nationwide and across the globe with different grading scales.

“We do conduct annual validity studies, and we have found that the ACT and the SAT do add incremental validity to first-year success,” she said. “There is a relationship between those scores and how students perform during their first year.”

Horne said Purdue looks at test scores in geographical context and takes into account the parents’ level of education and family income if a student’s application is strong but a test score is not.

“An SAT can underestimate a student’s ability very much,” she said. “When we see small town kids who have done everything they can in the environment in which they’ve been raised and educated, we look at whether they have excelled in their own environment. Those are the students for whom Purdue was built.”

Jaslee Caryola, a College Board spokeswoman, said the SAT is one of many factors that should be considered when making subjective admission decisions. A student’s high school GPA is increasingly subject to inflation, she said.

“When subjectivity is unchecked, bias can go unchecked,” she said in an e-mail. “The SAT and high school GPA are reciprocal checks and balances for each other.”

Earlham College in eastern Indiana opted for a “test optional” admissions policy for most students about six years ago.

Brian Zimmerman, director of media relations at Earlham, said standardized testing is not an optimal predictor of a student’s ability to succeed.

Earlham places a stronger emphasis on a student’s writing ability, academic achievement and a student’s commitment beyond the classroom in service and extracurricular activities.

International applicants, students who were home-schooled, and students applying for competitive scholarships are still required to submit a standardized test score, but all applications are reviewed through a holistic approach, Zimmerman said.

“We just believe that a student’s ability to succeed in college is indicative of more than a test score,” Zimmerman said. “Students don’t all learn the same way.”

Applicants can still send their test scores to any “test-optional” college or university if they choose to.

“We want the students to do what’s in their best interest,” Riester said.

This story was published in the IndyStar July 2, 2017. 

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