Here is a guest post from Martha Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and contributor to the new book SAT Wars, by Joseph Soares. Wake Forest is part of a growing “test-optional” movement, a group of several hundred colleges that have dropped the requirement that every applicant submit SAT or ACT scores. It’s driven by a gradual priority shift in college admissions away from standardized tests.
Admissions officers are charged by our institutions with the recruitment and selection of the students who will most enrich our respective collegiate communities. Those of us who are more seasoned often refer to our profession as “a mixture of art and science.” Predictive modeling and market research can certainly inform decision-making but, in reality, much depends on past experience and gut instinct. Depending on your perspective, it’s either witchcraft or magic.
How is it, then, that we are to successfully carry out our charge when 17-year-olds will be 17-year-olds? Though we know the best indicator of their performance in college is academic record, how can we quantify our predictions?
Conventional wisdom has insisted that those with the highest SAT scores are not only more intelligent but also more prepared for college life and thus more worthy of a position in a freshman class. While the high school transcript remains important, the standardized test has become the measure that can fulfill or dash a student’s college dream. Colleges and high schools wear their high SAT averages as a badge of honor and a seal of quality. In addition, the SAT (or ACT, in the case of some schools) serves as a handy tool to help admissions officers quickly separate the admitted from the denied, a decision-making crutch that enables us to plow through thousands of hopeful applications in those short winter months.
At Wake Forest, we have always espoused a “holistic” admissions approach, with multiple readers of each application assessing transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays, but until 2009, we also used the “crutch.” Around the admissions committee table, we often discussed our discomfort with the role of the test but, like most of our selective peers, we stayed in the comfort zone, continuing to require either the SAT or the ACT and thereby affirming to the world that we indeed defined intelligence and preparation by the outcome of four hours on a Saturday morning.
We knew standardized testing was under attack. We read California’s studies and the research of northeastern liberal arts colleges that had disavowed the “test.” The evidence continued to trickle in and then came in a deluge. Our then-new provost, Jill Tiefenthaler, and Kevin Rask, professor of economics, shared their research on the SAT’s lack of predictive power. Joseph Soares, a professor in our sociology department, published The Power of Privilege, denouncing the use of standardized tests as prejudicial to ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. If research proved that the test has little-to-no predictive power, is discriminatory and was clearly distracting time, energy and money from the real focus of education, what exactly was the point?
So, in the summer of 2008, Wake Forest made the decision to become test-optional beginning with the entering class of 2009. As chronicled in Soares’ new book, “SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional Admissions,” we in the admissions office approached the sea of change as “excited and scared.” Fast-forward to fall 2011, and we are now three classes into our test-optional policy. Our first test-optional students are juniors and I am happy to report we are still excited, but no longer scared.
For the past three years, we have been delighted by the response, and our results since becoming test-optional speak for themselves:
• The percentage of enrolling freshmen graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school classes has increased from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year.
• Students of color comprised 16 percent of the freshman class of 2008 and 22 percent in 2011.
• Enrolled Pell Grant recipients have doubled.
• Standardized test “non-submitters” are performing in the classroom on par with their counterparts who submitted scores for consideration and attrition is no different between submitters and non-submitters.
Not only have we not compromised our academic quality, as the nay-sayers warned, we are indeed a better institution. And we have struck a chord with students who, even though their test scores may be stellar, understand the inequities of the system and champion the idea that student achievement should be judged in context and over an entire high school career, not just by performance on a single test. We are all coming to realize that the playing field is decidedly not level in today’s educational environment and to find the “best” students is a challenging endeavor that demands thoughtful evaluation.
Doing our jobs in the admissions office without “the crutch” is indeed more demanding. Our application requires more writing from our applicants and thus more reading from admissions officers. We have instituted a personal interview component (conducted via Skype for those who can’t make it to campus) and in this year’s freshman class, 75 percent of our students were interviewed. We have challenged ourselves to evaluate transcripts and secondary schools more critically and have learned more about the International Baccalaureate program, charter schools and Early College programs. Admissions committee deliberations are longer and more complicated. But at the end of the day when the decisions are made, we feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. We have done our jobs fairly and honestly, and we believe have selected our class members truly on their merits. Predicting success is still a bit of magic and witchcraft, but now we have learned that test scores really need not be part of the mix.
As a 30-year admissions professional and a Wake Forest alumna, I must also say that one of the sweetest joys of test-optional is the response that I am able to give to the student who inquires, “I’m at the top of my class, I’ve taken the most difficult course of study offered at my school, I play in the orchestra and give back to my community, should I spend my Saturdays this fall paying for a class or a tutor to prepare me for several more administrations of the SAT?” And I can now reply, “No, if you want to make yourself more competitive in the Wake Forest applicant pool, you should spend your Saturdays playing your viola in the youth symphony, reading good books, volunteering to make your community better, exploring your mathematical and scientific passions and maybe just ‘thinking’ rather that practicing test strategies.”
And come to think of it, wouldn’t this country be a better place if we all did those things on Saturday morning?