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Test Optional Admissions: Benefiting Schools, Students, or Both?

Sep 01, 2011

According to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 275 colleges and universities nationwide have moved to a test-optional admissions policy in the belief that standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, are not appropriate gauges for academic merit. However, there are still issues being debated among educators, admissions officers and administrators, including the impact on a school's image, logistical challenges and the effect on students' academic behavior.

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By Mercy McKee

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Idealistic Move for Students or Marketing Gimmick for Schools?

FairTest, as well as many school administrators, believe that admissions policies should offer students both flexibility and the opportunity to show their academic and personal potential in a variety of ways, not just through test scores. Others, however, argue that dropping standardized tests from the admissions process is merely a marketing gimmick and deceptive strategy to improve rankings that has significant consequences. So what are the pros and cons of going test-optional?

The Argument for Test-Optional Admissions

One of the first arguments for taking test score requirements out of admissions is that there are more accurate predictors for college success than standardized tests. There have been studies that show that test results don't necessarily correlate to college success. Proponents of test-optional policies say that determining a student's academic merit should be based on their high school track record and their individual strengths and achievements rather than one afternoon of testing which may be more reflective of their family background than their academic capacity. Further, students may be encouraged to focus more on academics if they know they will be evaluated on their actual performance in the classroom rather than their SAT and ACT scores.

Additionally, performance on a test doesn't provide an accurate measure of some students' academic abilities. These students can be discouraged from applying to schools with SAT or ACT requirements and a student body with high averaging test scores. Removing the requirement may encourage low-scoring, yet otherwise academically strong students to apply to these schools, which can help colleges recruit academically stronger students, as well as diversify their student bodies.

Another concern is test coaching. Many students pay hundreds of dollars and spend countless hours on coaching courses in order to improve their test scores. However, admissions officers don't know which scores may have been boosted by coaching, and therefore don't know if the scores are representative of test-focused coaching or actual academic achievement.

Finally, SAT and ACT scores are currently used not only for college admissions, but also for awarding scholarships and measuring the quality of high schools, colleges and state education systems. However, experts and the test makers alike have said that judgments based on test score averages cannot be completely representative due to varying student populations and the proportion of students taking the tests.

Concerns and Criticisms

Opponents of test-optional admissions say that having test score requirements in place implies academic seriousness. There are concerns that removing them may signal a lowering of standards, which in turn may deter well-prepared students.

Artificial score inflation is another concern. If schools do not require test scores from lower-scoring applicants, and thereby do not report those scores, their test score average gives the appearance of increasing when it really hasn't. This may discourage lower income students from applying to schools they think are more academically prestigious than they really are.

And of course, there are logistical challenges. The biggest obstacle is making the switch to test-optional a priority in the face of hard economic times and bigger problems. Another hurdle is developing a national method for reporting scores, whether or not the scores are used in the admissions process. And finally, new policies and procedures would need to be developed and executed, and that takes time, faculty and money.

A test-optional admissions policy is just one factor in choosing a college. Read why students chose their school.

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