Standardized Test Redux

March 21, 2010

Colleges Explore Shades of Gray in Making Entrance Tests Optional

Ursinus College considered fairness and ideals as well as marketing and logistics

 Sarah Bones for The Chronicle 

Last year Richard DiFeliciantonio (right), vice president for enrollment at Ursinus College, hired a new admissions director, Richard Floyd, whose questions about the role of test scores prompted Ursinus to reconsider its stance.

By Eric Hoover

When a college stops requiring standardized admissions tests, no rainbow magically appears. Its endowment doesn’t grow, and its costs don’t shrink. Presidents still worry, professors still complain, and students still drink too much on Saturday nights.

Nonetheless, tales of going “test optional” often have a romantic tinge. In them, admissions deans, worried about equity and anxious teenagers, finally decide to do the right thing by casting off those terrible tests. After that, everything on the campus gets better.

Like many stories, this one invites other interpretations. A popular reading is that competition alone compels colleges to drop their ACT and SAT requirements. In this rendering, colleges care more about their image than anything else.

Fifteen years ago, colleges could still expect to make waves when they adopted test-optional policies. Over the last decade, however, dozens of private liberal-arts colleges have nixed their testing requirements, and these days the announcements cause more of a shrug than a splash.

Nonetheless, the choice remains controversial, often cast as either a noble move or a deceptive one.

In fact, the decision typically melds various motives, arising from a place where marketing and mission overlap. Data often drive a change of heart, but numbers alone don’t always explain why—or when—a college alters its testing policy. Often the switch happens gradually, following prolonged discussions, a change in leadership, or some other institutional shift. Like most issues in admissions, the decision is often more complicated than it might seem.

Ursinus College is a case in point. For months administrators and faculty members at the small liberal-arts college, in Collegeville, Pa., have weighed the possibility of dropping its testing requirements for all applicants. Recently the college gave The Chronicle an inside look at how officials reached a decision, and the questions they wrestled with.

This week Ursinus plans to announce that as of this fall it will no long require any of its applicants to submit standardized-test scores. Why? The question has more than one answer, according to Richard G. DiFeliciantonio, the college’s vice president for enrollment. “It’s kind of gray,” he says.

‘The Test as a Message’

Mr. DiFeliciantonio is not dogmatic about tests. Like many enrollment officials, he has sat across the table from high-school students who had earned A’s and B’s, but who fretted about their test scores. “We’re not Harvard,” he says. “We have plenty of kids with a 1100 on the SAT, and it goes to the heart of what their identity is.” This worries him.

Nonetheless, Mr. DiFeliciantonio has long believed that on the delicate scales of admissions work, the benefit of using the ACT and SAT slightly outweighed the cost. If tests told you a little bit more about how a student would probably perform, why not require them?

For years Mr. DiFeliciantonio also saw another benefit: Testing requirements, not to mention average test scores, send a message to the public. Since he came to Ursinus, in 1989, his job has been to help transform what was once a regional pre-professional institution into a selective liberal-arts college. “He thought having the test remain a requirement was a signifier of academic seriousness,” says John Strassburger, the college’s president. “He was happy seeing the test as a message and not just an instrument.”

Mr. Strassburger has long held a different view. In 2001 he wrote an opinion column called “Toss This Outmoded Ritual,” which was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Describing the SAT as a relic, he wrote that there was “no better time than now to focus on weaning ourselves from an anachronistic system that was designed years ago to discover the untutored genius on the plains.”

In 2000, Ursinus had stepped back from that system by adopting a partial test-optional policy. Applicants who ranked in the top 10 percent of their class, or who had at least a 3.5 grade-point average, could choose whether or not to submit their test scores. That let the college send two messages at once: Tests were still important, but not too important, at least not for everyone.

During the last decade, the college’s enrollment picture changed. In 2005, Ursinus received 1,700 applications; for the freshman class of 2010 it received nearly 6,000 (for about 475 spots). The increase stems from a more aggressive recruitment campaign, such as broadening the search for prospects in affluent markets and adopting free, fast-track applications. In short, Ursinus has fast become more competitive.

Peer pressure leads many colleges to rethink their testing requirements, and Ursinus is no exception. Last year Mr. DiFeliciantonio hired a new admissions director, Richard Floyd, who had worked at test-optional institutions and long doubted the necessity of test scores. His questions prompted the college to re-examine its requirements.

Mr. DiFeliciantonio looked more closely at the fact that the college’s main competitors—Dickinson, Gettysburg, Franklin & Marshall, and Muhlenberg Colleges—had waived their testing requirements for all applicants.

He also considered that there was no national standard for reporting mean ACT and SAT score ranges to national surveys and databases. Muhlenberg, for instance, acquires scores for all of its admitted students and includes them in its reported averages, but many other colleges do not. Some of Ursinus’s competitors with test-optional policies were reporting scores from as little as 60 percent of their students. For the last five years, Ursinus has reported scores for 85 percent of its students—all but those who did not want their scores evaluated.

Call it the Law of Artificial Score Inflation. By dropping its testing requirements, a college can reasonably expect that most applicants with higher scores will submit them, but those with lower scores will not. When that college computes its average of enrolled students, it can report, with a somewhat straight face, that its scores have risen. And so the college might appear more selective on paper than it truly is.

One day last fall, Mr. DiFeliciantonio and Mr. Strassburger discussed that phenomenon as the president clicked through College Navigator, the U.S. Department of Education’s free informational Web site. Associating with other selective liberal-arts institutions is a crucial part of Ursinus’s marketing strategy, but its average test scores were lower than those of its main competitors. The lack of a full test-optional policy explained at least some of that.

“I felt like we’ve been getting the worst end of that deal—that we were being undersold in the marketplace,” Mr. DiFeliciantonio says. “To say that’s the only reason we looked into this is just not the case. On the other hand, we didn’t want to be left out.”

So last fall, Ursinus did what the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s testing commission has encouraged colleges to do—it gathered its own data. In December admissions officials shared the results of a recent study with the Faculty Enrollment Committee. The study analyzed the impact of various admissions factors for 391 members of 2008’s incoming class. It found that high-school grade-point averages correlated with freshman-year grades; SAT scores added an additional predictive value to that equation, but not a lot. “That was the clincher for us,” says Mr. DiFeliciantonio.

In late January, the admissions office invited faculty members to discuss the testing requirement at a public forum. About 30 people came. Their many questions revealed the uncertainty that accompanies most campus discussions of changing testing policies.

Walter D. Greason, an assistant professor of history, raised a key question: Might a test-optional plan signal a lowering of standards, and thus deter well-prepared, affluent students?

At the same time, Mr. Greason has also wondered about how the college’s ability to report higher test scores might affect other applicants. A fifth of students at Ursinus receive federal Pell Grants, and about a third are first-generation college students. “If our lower-income group contracts, and our upper-income group expands,” he asks, “how do we reconcile that with our tradition?”

Life After Test-Optional

Going test-optional is not piece of cake. So Angel B. Pérez tells his colleagues when he presents at professional conferences. “It takes a long time to get your procedures together,” says Mr. Pérez, director of admission at Pitzer College, in California, which stopped requiring admissions exams in 2004.

Although news accounts often refer to a monolithic “test-optional movement,” such policies are as different as colleges themselves. Pitzer, for instance, does not require test scores from applicants with a 3.5 grade-point average or above. Those with lower grades may submit a graded math exam and a graded English paper in lieu of ACT or SAT scores.

Mr. Pérez believes the option is good for students, but it presents his staff with various challenges. For one, the policy requires them to collect all those high-school exams and papers, coordinate with professors who volunteer to evaluate the work, and then factor those evaluations into their admissions decisions.

Moreover, many admissions databases weren’t built with test-optional policies in mind. So when a college downloads a student’s information via the Common Application, for instance, it might receive test scores that the he or she doesn’t want that college to evaluate. This means admissions officers must double-check to make sure that they are complying with each applicant’s wishes.

Finally, to remove a test score from an evaluation of an application is to remove a common reason to admit or deny a student. “Philosophically, we love that,” says Mr. Pérez. “But it actually makes selecting a class far more difficult.”

When Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, changed its testing requirements in 2007, officials there created the “Flex Path” option. Applicants could opt not to submit their scores, so long as they sent something that reflected their “organization, motivation, creativity, and problem-solving ability.”

The response has overwhelmed Kristin Tichenor, Worcester’s vice president for enrollment management. Over the last three years, she has seen an annual flood of submissions, including portfolios, photo journals, paintings, robot designs, schematics for catapults, recordings of musical performances, and 40-page research papers on anatomy. Applicants must also explain in writing what that work says about them. Admissions officials rate those submissions on a scale of one to five.

This year, 238 of the institute’s 6,653 applicants asked the college to suppress their scores, yet many students submitted a Flex Path project and their scores. “It was quite the revelation,” says Ms. Tichenor, whose staff now gathers for regular brown-bag lunches to evaluate all those projects. Although time-consuming, the process seems valuable. Like Pitzer, Worcester has seen its applicant pool grow larger and more diverse since going test-optional.

Ms. Tichenor suspects that the policy has convinced more students, particularly those in underrepresented minority groups, that the college is not only accessible, but also interested in who they are.

“One could argue that we took a huge risk in doing something out of the norm,” Ms. Tichenor says. “When you subject yourself to the scrutiny of your peers, there’s a risk that others will say, ‘Oh, they’re just doing this out of desperation or anxiety.’ If anything, it’s a harder decision to do something different.”

‘For Appearance’s Sake’

Once, a college could expect only positive press after announcing a new test-optional policy. Today presidents might find themselves fending off criticism that they’re lemmings bounding along the publicity trail.

In 2006, Colin S. Diver, president of Reed College, wrote a column in The New York Times in which he assailed the “disheartening trend” of going test-optional, describing it as the new gimmick in the “admissions arms race.” Mr. Diver asserted that the main reason colleges dropped test requirements was to improve their standing in U.S. News & World Report‘s college rankings. It was illogical, he argued, to count some applicants’ scores but ignore those of others.

Skepticism about test-optional polices has begun to echo more frequently in questions from students and parents alike, according to several admissions officials. “People need to be prepared to explain the complexity behind the decision, that you’re not just getting on the bandwagon because it’s popular,” says Mr. Pérez, at Pitzer. “Students ask me, ‘Why does this policy fit Pitzer?’ I have to be ready to respond.”

Mr. Diver’s critique overstated the effect that an increase in test scores would have on a college’s ranking, according to U.S. News. Furthermore, some colleges have fudged their reporting of scores since before the “test optional” was a catchphrase; such gamesmanship is not the exclusive province of colleges with no testing requirements.

Yet Mr. Diver did strike at the heart of the debate: Who’s in charge of the admissions process? To adopt a test-optional policy is to grant that applicants should rightfully determine what is—and is not—a good measure of their academic abilities.

G. Gary Ripple says there’s nothing wrong with that. Mr. Ripple was director of admissions at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, which dropped its testing requirement in 1994. Four years later, the faculty voted to reinstate it. The change had not brought the expected surge in high-achieving students with modest test scores.

One reason, Mr. Ripple says, was that the college never figured out how to present the policy to applicants. To lead with it or merely mention it in passing? “I don’t think we ever gave it a fair chance,” he says.

Still, Mr. Ripple rejects the criticism that going test-optional is all about image. After all, it’s a criticism that one can turn on its head: If touting the benefits of test-optional policies is a marketing gimmick, isn’t touting the benefits of test requirements a marketing gimmick, too? “Any college that’s looking at this decision now has to realize that they’re already doing something for appearance’s sake,” he says. “And that’s requiring the SAT.”

While the debate over admissions tests involves big, philosophical questions about fairness and aptitude, obstacles to going test-optional often involve practical concerns, like the number of chairs in an office. A move to more-holistic evaluations of applicants might require additional staff members, more space, and new marketing materials. In other words, things that cost money.

Over the years, Robert A. Schaeffer, public-education director at FairTest, a nonprofit group, has consulted with hundreds of admissions officials about their testing requirements. Recently he has worked with a few colleges where, he says, officials are already convinced of the benefit of going test-optional. “The challenge is getting it to be a priority,” he says. “The thing we’ve heard during the economic downturn is that the decision makers on admissions policy have bigger things to worry about, like yield and deposits.”

At Ursinus, officials are still sorting through the logistics. What kind of writing requirement will they add to next year’s application? Should applicants who do not submit test scores be eligible for the college’s top merit scholarships, given in the past to those with top-notch grades and scores? How should the college word its new policy so as not to encourage or discourage applicants to send their scores?

Such are the questions of any college caught in the curious undertow of the test-optional trend, one that makes policy changes almost inevitable for some institutions. Twenty-six years after Bates College became one of the first to drop its testing requirements, the move is now not so much bold as sensible. “There’s not a lot of room for bending over backwards and congratulating ourselves for being idealists in this,” says Mr. Strassburger, of Ursinus. “But we think what’ve done is consonant with our ideals.”

Soon Mr. Floyd, the admissions director, must also decide how the college will report its ACT and SAT averages in the future. Will it include only the scores of students who wanted theirs considered, which would surely raise its average, or all the scores it has on hand?

Mr. Floyd would prefer the latter. But either way, he knows that a test-optional policy is not magic. “We wanted to remove a barrier that other schools don’t have,” he says. “But it’s not going to dramatically change the campus overnight.”

Chronicle of Higher Education

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