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The SAT, ACT, and "Test Optional" Admissions


Wake Forest, a small selective college in North Carolina, recently made the decision to allow applicants to not submit ACT or SAT scores. Thus Wake Forest joins the list of “test optional” colleges, a list that includes Smith College, Bowdoin College, Connecticut College, and hundreds of others.
One of the main reasons colleges cite for making tests optional is that lower income students generally perform less well on these tests than their more affluent counterparts. And poorer students tend to be less white, generally speaking, than the general population. Further, students with lower test scores tend to self-select, and avoid applying to colleges where they might actually get in because they have excellent academic records and a bevy of extracurricular activities.
So a college that goes “test optional” is likely to be interested in attracting more students of color to apply–and matriculate.
CNN published an excellent article last Friday, that provides a very balanced explanation of the pros and cons of using standardized tests in the admissions process.
Basically the debate can be summarized this way”

  1. Different schools grade differently.  An A in the wealthy part of town is not the same as an A in a poorer school.  This should not be, but it is.
  2. Standardized tests are a way to compare students across schools, across districts, and across states.  They are an imperfect measure of aptitude or intelligence.  But they are useful in comparing apples to apples.
  3. Students with lower scores, many of whom are black, brown, and red, are attend college at much lower rates than their whiter counterparts.  Yet most colleges, especially private, selective ones, truly want to recruit and retain more students of color.  Thus if they stick to test scores as a key to admission, they will effectively block admission to large numbers of minorities.
  4. In order to improve minority recruiting, then, some colleges choose to make the tests optional in hopes of attracting more minority applicants.

My view is that SAT scores are a useful way to compare apples to apples.  But the problem is our national education system is anything but standardized, and while “separate but equal” is no longer allowed on racial grounds, we certainly have, de facto, a segregated education system in which the poor and the rich do not enjoy the same educational opportunities.
Therefore I like the idea of “test optional” schools.  As it turns out, most of the selective colleges that are test optional (like Bowdoin) receive scores from about 80% of their applicants.  So the tests aren’t going away.  But if being a test-optional college gives more talented minority kids more hope that their application will be given a fair shake, then I think Wake Forest and the rest are making a good decision.
The SAT and ACT are not in any danger of going away, however.  The NCAA will still use the scores as a requirement for athletic eligibility. A recent story on ESPN explains that scores are important, but grades are probably more important.
If you’re looking for a defense of the proper use of standardized tests in college admission, you might want to take a look at an article by Steve Farmer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  He recently wrote a piece that rightly pointed out that there is still a lot we don’t know about how to predict success in college.  Grade point averages (GPAs) are only slightly better predictors of success than the standardized tests. But neither is really all that great.
So, my advice?
Take the SAT and / or the ACT.   Plan on reporting your scores to the college of your choice.  However, if you really bomb the test, you can (and should!) consider a test-optional school.
Mark Montgomery
College Counselor


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