New Report Questions Motives Of 'Test-Optional' Institutions

By Staff
July 31, 2009

A report published this month suggests that colleges and universities may opt to make SAT and ACT exam scores optional in order to boost enrollment and rankings.

"With colleges and universities engaged in intense competition to recruit ever more talented and diverse students, test-optional policies become alluring," explained Jonathan P. Epstein, a senior consultant at Maguire Associates, whose report appeared in The Journal of College Admission. Epstein, who was quoted in The New York Times, noted that becoming test-optional generates more ethnically-diverse applications.

The trend appears to be catching on: According to FairTest, a non-profit group that supports test-optional policies, 32 of the top 100 colleges on the U.S. News & World Report liberal arts college list no longer require submission of SAT or ACT scores.

Yet Epstein suggests that other factors may play a role as well: The increased applications create the perception that an institution is more selective. Additionally, since students who did poorly on entrance exams are less likely to submit their scores, SAT and ACT averages can be reported as higher.

"To me, one of the dangers in not publishing an all-inclusive profile is that you may be artificially discouraging kids whose scores are closer to the true profile," said Chris Hooker-Haring, the dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The institution was found by Epstein to be the only liberal arts college in U.S. News & World Report's top tier that follows up on missing scores, which are then included in its average. As a result, its math/verbal score decreased from 1250 to 1220.

Moreover, Epstein pointed out that some colleges continue to count standardized test scores when determining who receives merit aid. "We don't know how widespread it is," admitted Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, who was quoted in The Times, "but we suspect a significant number of schools that are test-optional do use test scores for some merit scholarships. This is a problem that we are gravely concerned about."

Yet when asked to comment on Epstein's report for The Washington Post, Schaeffer downplayed its conclusions. "Even if schools slightly improve their rankings by not including SAT scores from students who did not submit them, they have far more significant motivations for dropping test requirements, including a commitment to enhancing intellectual and demographic diversity," he said.

"The truth is that a growing number of schools are recognizing that test scores do not measure merit," he noted. "They know that test-optional admissions is better both for students and for their institutions."

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