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George Washington University applicants no longer need to take admissions tests

George Washington University (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post).

This story has been updated.

George Washington University dropped its testing requirement for most freshman admissions Monday, becoming one of the largest and most prominent schools to declare that its applicants don’t have to take the SAT or ACT.

The announcement from the private university in the nation’s capital underscores a growing belief in some college admission circles that standardized tests are a barrier to recruiting disadvantaged students. While that view is sharply debated, many say it is possible to assemble a strong class without forcing applicants to submit a score from tests that critics say are culturally biased and often fail to reflect academic potential.

GWU administrators say they always seek well-rounded applicants by looking beyond test scores. But they have worried lately that anxiety about scores was leading some students to cross the school off their list.

“Although we have long employed a holistic application review process, we had concerns that students who could be successful at GW felt discouraged from applying if their scores were not as strong as their high school performance,” said Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton. “We want outstanding students from all over the world and from all different backgrounds – regardless of their standardized scores – to recognize GW as a place where they can thrive.”

More than 125 private colleges and universities featured in U.S. News and World Report rankings now have test-optional admission policies, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest. Twenty have joined that group since January 2014, including Wesleyan University, ranked 15th among national liberal arts colleges. American University, also in the District of Columbia and ranked 71st on the magazine’s national university list, went test-optional a few years earlier.

GWU ranks 54th on that list, and among private universities in the national top 100, it is now the largest with test-optional admissions. It has 25,000 students, more than 10,000 of them undergraduates.

Wake Forest University, 27th on the national university list, said it has recruited more minority students since announcing a test-optional policy in 2008. “We find much more value in a student’s accomplishments in four years of high school than in four hours of Saturday testing,” said Martha Blevins Allman, dean of admissions at the private university in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Wake’s policy drew Natalie Casimir to the university.

Casimir, 18, from Mooresville, N.C., said she thrived in the International Baccalaureate program at her public school and got mostly A’s and a few B’s. But she didn’t have the knack for testing. She took the ACT twice and got middling scores. Then she got a 1580 (out of 2400) on the SAT at the end of 11th grade. She was despondent.

“It really hit me hard,” she said. “I felt like my work in the classroom wasn’t adequately depicted in the test scores. I kind of panicked. I had only really known of schools that took SAT or ACT scores. I thought, maybe I’m not good enough to get into a really good school.”

But she was. An older brother tipped her off to Wake Forest’s policy, and she fell in love with the school. She applied without submitting test scores and got in. A daughter of Haitian immigrants, Casimir is now a rising sophomore and plans to major in English with minors in political science and Spanish.

[Bombed the SAT or the ACT? Here are colleges that are ‘test-optional.’]

Some schools require test scores but accept results from Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams instead of the SAT or ACT. Among these “test-flexible” schools are New York University, University of Rochester and Hamilton College. Some public universities — including George Mason and several others in Virginia — waive testing requirements for applicants with qualified grade-point averages. Others, such as the University of Texas, grant automatic admission to eligible in-state applicants who rank near the top of their high school class.

Most selective schools continue to require the SAT or ACT. Millions of high school students each year take one exam or the other — often both, and sometimes repeatedly — on the presumption that admissions testing is an exasperating but essential ritual. The College Board is preparing to roll out a new SAT in March, the first revision since 2005, with the essay becoming optional and the perfect score reverting from 2400 to the iconic standard of 1600. The ACT, now more widely used than the SAT in the United States, has contracts with many states to test all 11th-graders in public schools. The test-preparation industry has grown worldwide as college-bound students seek every possible edge to get into ultra-selective schools.

[More on revisions to the SAT and on the ACT’s growth.]

ACT President Jon L. Erickson dismissed any suggestion that there is a significant test-optional trend. “I’m not seeing it,” he said.

Erickson said test scores, read alongside transcripts and other elements of an application package, have proven their value to generations of admissions officers. Asked about schools that have dropped testing requirements, Erickson said: “I have to question why having less information to make a decision is a good thing. To me, for a good decision, you want as much information as possible.”

Jack Buckley, senior vice president for research at the College Board, said the SAT is “an essential part of the admissions process” for most colleges and universities. “Test-optional schools are our members and our partners,” Buckley said in a statement. “We respect the decisions they make about their admissions processes and we will continue to listen to our members, evolve our programs, and work to expand access to opportunity for all students.”

Both admissions tests were originally conceived as measures to widen access to college, helping colleges sort students on individual merit rather than connections of family and privilege. Research has shown, though, that there are correlations between economic circumstances and test scores.

[ACT president: Take whichever college test suits you.]

The College Board and ACT both seek to promote the ideal that students from any background can aim for college — and aim high.

But GWU officials said that in recent years they have grown worried that their efforts to diversify were hitting obstacles. They feared that some students with strong records in high school were not applying because of a misguided perception that their scores weren’t good enough.

In 2014, test scores for students in the middle of those offered admission to GWU ranged from 1890 to 2110 on the SAT, and 28 to 32 on the ACT, which has a top score of 36. A quarter of admitted students scored higher than those marks, and a quarter scored lower. But that range — known as “the middle half” — is a widely circulated statistic for selective colleges. Students whose scores fall short of the middle half might wonder about their chances, even if they have taken a rigorous path through high school, earned A’s and B’s, written fine essays and displayed strong personal qualities.

“We want those students to have us on their radar, and not self-select out of the pool,” said Laurie Koehler, GWU’s senior associate provost for enrollment management. That is the primary reason for GWU’s policy shift, which takes effect for students seeking admission for fall 2016. The change was recommended by a task force on access and success that university President Steven Knapp formed in early 2014.

Testing will still be required for home-schooled applicants, GWU said, as well as students from high schools that only provide narrative evaluation of students, college athletes and those applying for a seven-year program that leads to a combined bachelor’s/medical degree.

Koehler said she expects many will send in test scores despite the new option. Those scores, she said, will provide some insight. “I don’t think we’re trying to say that testing in itself is always bad or worthless,” she said.

But Koehler said the best predictor of success in college “is high school performance as measured on a transcript, and in the context of the school.”

[Inside the admission shop at GWU: What officers really say when reading applications.]

GWU wants to raise its national profile and diversify its student body. With a full price of more than $62,000 for tuition, fees, room and board, GWU provides significant grants to students in need. Fourteen percent of undergraduates receive need-based federal Pell grants. Fourteen percent also are black or Hispanic.

The test-optional movement has been building for years. Bowdoin College in Maine dropped testing requirements in 1969. Bates College, also in Maine, abandoned its SAT requirement in 1984. A slew of other small schools eventually joined them, including Smith, Bryn Mawr, and College of the Holy Cross. In recent years, some national universities also have gone test-optional, according to FairTest, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2007, DePaul in 2011, Brandeis in 2013, Temple in 2014 and Virginia Commonwealth this year. FairTest counts more than 800 schools of all kinds — including tiny religious colleges and online for-profit educators — that admit substantial numbers of students without using SAT or ACT scores.

Hampshire College went a step further last year, declaring itself “test-blind.” That means it won’t even look at SAT or ACT results. “Even if it’s a perfect score,” the college said.

William C. Hiss, a former Bates admission dean, led a study of student outcomes at 33 test-optional colleges and universities for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It found last year that there was no significant difference in college grades or graduation rates between those students who had submitted test scores with their applications and those who hadn’t.

Hiss, a longtime test-optional advocate, said many admission chiefs told him the policies bolstered diversity. “They saw increases in applications from both low-income students and students of color,” Hiss said.

Others are skeptical of that claim. Andrew Belasco, a college-admissions consultant in Georgia who studied more than 30 liberal arts colleges with test-optional policies, last year found no evidence that they had more success than schools with testing mandates at raising the share of students from poor or minority backgrounds.

“If you’re really serious about attracting low-income students, you need to get serious about meeting those students where they are,” Belasco said. “You need to actually get out and recruit. You need to do more things in financial aid, making it easier for students to attend.”