Tests are scary, right? People shouldn’t be judged on a single day’s performance, especially when high-stakes testing is so stressful. And what can a multiple-choice test say about a person anyway? Wouldn’t the college admissions process be more fair if schools stopped using the SAT or ACT?
Just to be clear, those are not my sentiments. Instead, I’m trying to channel the arguments of the champions of test-optional admissions, which is often lumped in with those who simply hate every form and application of standardized testing. Both factions have found recent reason to celebrate with the very public announcement that Hampshire College has decided not to accept SAT/ACT scores from applicants. This is a significant step beyond test-optional into a realm where standardized test scores have no value whatsoever in admissions. Instead, according to the president of the college, a more holistic admissions process reigns at Hampshire:
In our admissions, we review an applicant’s whole academic and lived experience. We consider an applicant’s ability to present themselves in essays and interviews, review their recommendations from mentors, and assess factors such as their community engagement and entrepreneurism. And yes, we look closely at high school academic records, though in an unconventional manner. We look for an overarching narrative that shows motivation, discipline, and the capacity for self-reflection. We look at grade point average (GPA) as a measure of performance over a range of courses and time, distinct from a one-test-on-one-day SAT/ACT score. A student’s consistent “A” grades may be coupled with evidence of curiosity and learning across disciplines, as well as leadership in civic or social causes. Another student may have overcome obstacles through determination, demonstrating promise of success in a demanding program. Strong high school graduates demonstrate purpose, a passion for authenticity, and commitment to positive change.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? This has certainly been positive for Hampshire College. The school may have been removed from the U.S. News & Word Report “Best Colleges” rankings, but the school’s yield–the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll–rose in a single year from 18% to 26%. In the Washington Post article which allows Jonathan Lash a public forum to explain both the reasoning behind and impacts of this new admissions policy, the president of Hampshire sounds absolutely thrilled with every aspect of this brave, new, test-agnostic world. Many readers have picked up this sense of fraught possibility, which must explain why friends keep sending me the link!
But the simple truth is that the SAT and ACT are not going away. Only a small fraction of schools even adopt a test-optional stance, where many conventional students still need to submit scores. Explore the list of test-optional schools, and you will find a preponderance of private liberal arts colleges. Why?
Test-optional admissions is expensive. And you have to pay for it.
SAT and ACT scores offer a simple, inexpensive, reliable, and relevant way for colleges to put applicants’ grades and courses in context. Test scores enable admissions offices to assess students from a wide spectrum of high schools even though each school and even each teacher varies in academic rigor. Without these scores, the process of determining what an individual’s GPA really means becomes much more complicated and thus costly.
Hampshire College is representative of many test-optional colleges. 2014-15 Tuition, Room, and Board at this liberal arts school in Massachusetts totaled a tick under $60,000. Before the school waived SAT and ACT scores entirely, its 18% yield rate was barely high enough to keep the school off the list of Colleges with the Most Ignored Acceptance Letters. Neither of these facts say anything about the quality of the school’s education or campus experience. Nonetheless, the admissions decisions a costly, non-competitive school has to make are different from those required by more competitive schools.
Tests like the SAT and ACT can be scary, especially for those who don’t prepare. Fortunately, a growing number of colleges are opening their doors to applicants who wish to be judged on other merits. But the dream of a test-free admissions landscape is, at least until better and cheaper assessments come along, nothing but a fantasy.