This post has been updated.
Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao was unequivocal about the shift in admission policy. The public university in Richmond, he said in January, would no longer require all applicants to submit admission test scores. Rao made headlines as he called the SAT “fundamentally flawed.” This splashy quote helped promote VCU as one of the latest “test-optional” schools. Applicants with high school grade-point averages of at least 3.3 could bypass the testing mandate.
What was the outcome?
Many, many applicants for the fall term sent in test scores anyway.
Luke D. Schultheis, vice provost for strategic enrollment management, said the university had a “tremendous” recruiting cycle. About 4,050 to 4,100 students will enter in the fall as freshmen, he said, which is 450 to 500 more than in previous years. “It’s a huge jump,” he said. Schultheis said the share of African-American and Latino students is on the rise, and grade-point averages of incoming students are up too.
Of 16,279 applicants, Schultheis said, 11,777 were offered admission. The number who applied without sending in test scores: 172.
That’s 1 percent.
There’s a caveat. Rao’s announcement came late in the cycle. VCU has soft deadlines and, effectively, rolling admissions, Schultheis said. So it’s likely that the new policy was only available to a few thousand applicants. The share of those applicants who didn’t submit scores may be 5 to 8 percent.
Still, the point is that admissions testing is deeply ingrained in the American college system. Many students believe their scores on the ACT or SAT will help their cause — or at least, that the scores are essential. So they take the tests, once, twice or even more often. These students, like the College Board and ACT, do not view the testing as “fundamentally flawed.” They see it as a necessary chore to help students find the right school.
“The SAT is among the most rigorously researched and designed tests in the world and is an essential part of the admissions process for the vast majority of colleges and universities in this country,” Jack Buckley, the College Board’s senior vice president for research, said in a statement to The Post. “Research consistently shows that the SAT is a strong predictor of academic success, with demonstrated validity predicting first-year GPA, fourth-year cumulative GPA, retention, and graduation rates.”
At VCU, Schultheis said the university studied its internal data closely before making the switch. “The only thing that stood out was high school GPA as a really strong predictor” of success at VCU, he said. “So we said we’re going to go with it.”
Here are some impressions from other admission chiefs at schools that have gone test-optional.
Wesleyan University’s dean of admission and financial aid, Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, said the liberal arts school in Connecticut announced the switch in early 2014 because “the timing was right.” She cited the “changing test landscape (new SAT/ACT) and Wesleyan’s long-standing commitment to access.” Meislahn said students and alumni “celebrated the change” and that the school has drawn more applicants who are first in their family to go college, more students of color, and more international students. “In the Wesleyan context, with an already robustly diverse pool, this is significant,” she said. Twenty-three percent of Wesleyan’s applicants for the entering class chose not to submit scores.
Drake University’s vice president for admission and student financial planning, Tom Delahunt, said the Iowa school studied whether standardized tests (the ACT is the major test in Iowa) were a good predictor of success. It concluded that the tests were not essential, and it announced a test-optional policy this month. The average score for incoming freshmen at Drake, he said, had been rising in recent years. Some officials worried that the rising would scare off potential applicants — similar to concerns that led to a test-optional switch this week at George Washington University.
Drake said applicants who don’t send in test scores will be asked to have a live interview with the admission staff. “For us, it made sense,” Delahunt said.
Pitzer College’s interim vice president for admission and financial aid, Jamila Everett, said the liberal arts college in the Claremont consortium in Southern California decided to go test-optional in 2003. She said the college studied the issue for two years before making the switch. This year, the college received 4,149 applications and admitted 536 students. That’s a highly selective admission rate of 13 percent, the lowest in the college’s history.
Of the applicants, 49 percent did not submit standardized test scores. Of those admitted, 56 percent did not submit scores.
“Test scores are not a significant part of our evaluation process,” Everett said. “We make no assumptions as to why some students choose to submit scores while others don’t, so there are no advantages for students to submit. We want to students to represent themselves in ways that they feel accurately represents their academic achievement and potential; some students might feel that a test score does give insight into their academic strengths, while others might not.”
Other schools in the prestigious Claremont consortium do require test scores: Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps and Harvey Mudd colleges. Does it worry Everett that Pitzer might be losing valuable information by not requiring test scores?
“No, we do not worry that we are losing valuable information,” she said. “Our process is not defined by numbers, but rather a holistic approach with an emphasis placed on high school transcripts, recommendation letters, leadership positions, work history, involvement in school and community activities and commitment to our core values. Pitzer students are deeply reflective and involved in integrative learning. Given our current evaluation process, I do not see a test score adding to the conversations that our admission counselors have about how a student would thrive both academically and socially in our community.”