Kristin Tichenor, a senior vice president at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, steps into the debate over whether to require standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT from applicants, with an account of what happened when they dropped the requirement in hopes of encouraging more women and minority students to apply. 

By Kristin R. Tichenor

While many regard December as a festive time for family and holiday celebrations, those of us in college admissions spend most of our waking hours reviewing application essays, teacher recommendations and high school transcripts.

December marks the official start to the college selection process in America.

As the person responsible for enrollment outcomes at my institution and the parent of two daughters – one in college and one in high school – I have been following this year’s admissions trends with great interest, especially the trend that offers the most promise for access in higher education: The surge in colleges adopting a test-optional admissions policy.

In 2008, our school became the first nationally-ranked technological institution to adopt a test-optional admissions policy. The decision, made after several years of intensive discussion and analysis, was based on the desire to encourage underrepresented populations – women, minorities, and first-generation students – to consider applying to our institution.

We assumed then what we know now, that young women and minority students tend to self-select out of college-level studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) due to the misperception that they do not have the academic ability to succeed.

For young women, the big hurdle is the belief that admission to a highly selective STEM program requires perfect math scores and grades.

For underrepresented minority and first-generation students, there is the fear that their scores will under-predict their capacity for success and weaken their chances for admission. For these target populations, test scores serve to discourage students who might otherwise consider applying to science and engineering programs at the college level.

Educators, employers and elected officials have long lamented the shortage of women and minorities in STEM studies. Despite our best efforts to encourage young people to pursue STEM careers by way of pipeline programs and greater emphasis on math and science achievement in grades K-12, college enrollments in these fields have stalled.

In fact, the percentage of women earning undergraduate engineering degrees has actually declined over the past decade. In 2005, women represented 19.5 percent of those receiving bachelor’s degrees in engineering. In 2013, the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering is 19.1 percent.

The fact that women represent 57 percent of the college degree earners makes their underrepresentation in STEM even more dramatic.

Over that same time period, the percentage of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in engineering dropped, too — from 9.5 percent to 8.6 percent.

And yet most gate-keepers in higher education continue to require standardized tests that we know correlate strongly with race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The irony is that for even the most selective institutions, admissions decisions are based primarily on the rigor of a student’s high school course program and demonstrated academic achievement, not on test scores.

By continuing to require standardized testing, colleges and universities perpetuate misperceptions about standardized tests’ role in the college selection process and miss an opportunity to open doors to underrepresented populations.

The beauty of a test-optional admission policy is that it addresses those misperceptions and socioeconomic biases head-on.

Test-optional institutions make it clear to students that we care most about their demonstrated academic achievement in high school. We carefully review course selection, patterns of academic achievement, teacher recommendations, and personal statements. We look at extracurricular involvement, community engagement and motivation levels.

Our own data from eight years as a test-optional institution is powerful: The number of applications from women has nearly doubled, and the number of women who have enrolled has grown by 78 percent. The number of applications from underrepresented minority students has grown by 241 percent with an enrollment increase of 226 percent.

Those are staggering increases that far exceeded our expectations.

And these are high-achieving students with excellent grades, in the toughest classes their schools have to offer. Most of our incoming students rank at the top of their high school class and more than half graduated with a 4.0 GPA.

A test-optional policy is not about attracting weaker students. It is about sending prospective students a message: we see you as more than a number.

To reinforce that point, we invite students to submit alternative materials that they believe reflect their capacity for academic success. So applicants send us their Eagle Scout projects, science-fair submissions, robotics designs and architectural blueprints. They send portfolios and photo journals and poetry.

The surprise is that rather than sending us these materials in lieu of their SATs or ACTs, they send us these materials in addition to their test scores.

Only five percent of our applicants actually suppress their test scores.

While the additional materials present some challenges in terms of filing and storage, they give us a much better understanding of the students’ talents and potential for success than standardized test scores ever could.

Cynics claim that test-optional policies are not leading to diversity but are merely a first step to removing barriers. I would counter that standardized testing can be a major deterrent, especially for science- and engineering-intensive institutions.

We changed the policy to reflect what matters most to us in the selection process and, in so doing, made it clear that admissions decisions are based on evidence of leadership, creativity, motivation, and problem-solving, not socioeconomic status or demographics.

Not only are retention and graduation rates for non-submitters consistent with those for the student body as a whole, but we found that SAT scores consistently underestimated first-year grade performance for our women. Our institution is now ranked fourth in the nation for the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in engineering.

If more colleges and universities join the 850-plus institutions that have adopted test-optional admissions policies, they will send a powerful message to prospective students. Let’s give students of all backgrounds access to opportunities in higher education and to STEM fields in particular.

As admissions professionals, we say we value achievement over aptitude. It’s high time to demonstrate that commitment by changing our admission requirements.