Report Says Test Scores Should Be Less Important in College Admissions

Colleges should review their policies and consider going test optional if possible.

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A report by a group of influential experts recommends that colleges re-examine their admissions and merit aid policies and consider admitting students without the use of scores from standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.

The report, commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, mirrors concerns raised by many high school counselors that colleges have assigned too much importance to test scores and is highly critical of test-preparation programs, which appear to benefit mostly affluent students. The commission, which included Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons as well as several other well-regarded college admissions officials and high school counselors, recommends that colleges shift toward exams that test students on their knowledge of high school curriculum subjects, such as the SAT subject tests, Advanced Placement exams, and the International Baccalaureate exams.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, issued a statement defending its admissions exam as fair. "Working with our member institutions and other educators, we look forward to continuing our efforts to further improve the value of our SAT Subject Tests to institutions," the statement said. It noted that scores on the SAT, along with high school grades, are strong predictors of college success and joined the commission in its call for appropriate use of test scores.

Of the commission's report, ACT Inc. says that it has "always recommended that colleges use multiple indicators of college readiness along with ACT test scores for admissions, scholarships and other high stakes decisions. No single measure can be an effective measure of students' likely success in college." (U.S. News uses SAT and ACT data to rank colleges, a practice the report criticizes. Robert Morse has responded here.)

The report will no doubt be the subject of much conversation when the NACAC membership arrives this week in Seattle for the group's annual convention. Many counselors believe that standardized tests hurt a variety of students, from disadvantaged minorities to kids who just don't test well. "I cannot tell you how many students I have worked with who are amazing in their classes but freeze when it comes to the SAT or ACT because they know how much is riding on the scores," says Patricia Mucenski, a counselor at Lisbon High School in Maine. "Unfortunately, for these students who do have good GPAs but poor test scores, merit aid is usually lessened or not offered at all."

The difficult task admissions officers would face in a world without SATs and ACTs is how to compare evenly applicants from schools across the nation. "Grades, without adequate context, aren't of much use, either, because of the radical differences in the way grades are used from school to school and even teacher to teacher," says Bruce Poch, vice president and admissions dean at Pomona College. "Grade inflation in secondary schools is well documented."

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which tends to oppose standardized testing, was quick to praise the findings of the report. The organization says about 775 colleges have test-optional admissions criteria. Bob Schaeffer, the organization's public education director, predicted the report would accelerate the pace of colleges dropping the SAT and ACT. Others disagree. It's too early to know if the report will lead more colleges to drop the tests from their admissions criteria. Bari Norman, who is a private college counselor with clients in New York and Miami, says it's not easy to convince parents that their children can go to selective universities like Harvard (which acknowledges the report but declined to say whether it will change its test policy) without competitive SAT or ACT scores. "I think universities such as Harvard need to step up to the plate in a real way and actually de-emphasize the use of these scores in their admissions processes," Norman says.