The debate over the use of standardized test scores in college admissions is not new. Opponents condemn the practice as biased; proponents tout it as a critical indicator of future academic success. But few live the experience from both sides.
As a former executive director of the GRE testing program, the graduate school cousin of the SAT, and now president of Ithaca College, I have. And despite my respect for standardized testing and my belief that much of the criticism it receives is misplaced, I recently made the decision to institute a test-optional policy for undergraduate admission at Ithaca.
Last year, Ithaca joined the growing number of colleges that have incorporated an option to omit standardized test scores for some or all of their applicants last year. At the heart of our decision was the conviction that requiring a test score might limit our applicant pool and potentially distort our admissions and financial aid decisions.
Our first realization was that test scores add relatively little to our ability to predict the success of our students. Studies undertaken by the SAT's sponsor, the College Board, generally indicate that the SAT adds only modestly to the prediction of student success after high school GPA is taken into account. Our internal study showed similar results, validating that the loss of test score information at the time of admission makes very little difference in our ability to identify how successful applicants will later become as college students.
In addition, we know that some potential students are deterred from applying to colleges that require a test score because they are not comfortable taking standardized tests. In fact, groundbreaking research by psychologist Claude Steele, now dean for the School of Education at Stanford University, has shown that underrepresented groups are more likely than others to be put off by test score requirements.
As a result, we strongly suspected that we were not seeing applications from some potential students who would shine in our academic environment and who could use the Ithaca College experience as a springboard to a happy and successful life. We expected that eliminating standardized tests as a required element of the application would enable us to increase the number of highly qualified applicants to the college, increase the quality of the enrolled freshman class, and increase the diversity of that class. And we fared well against those goals.
With respect to the increase in application numbers, we greatly exceeded our expectations. We projected a 7 percent increase in applications compared to one year ago and instead experienced a 13 percent increase. One-quarter of our applicants chose not to submit a test score, meaning that we may have had nearly 4,000 applications that we would not otherwise have received.
We also enrolled a freshman class of over 1,800 students – 100 more than our target enrollment. The fall 2013 freshman class will be the most diverse in our history, with 22 percent of the class identifying themselves as members of underrepresented groups. The quality of the freshman class, as measured by grade point average and test scores for the 75 percent that submitted them, is essentially identical to one year ago. And the accept rate and the average high school grade point average of applicants who did not submit test scores were only slightly lower than the comparable numbers of those who did send us their scores.
Standardized tests are tools rather than ends in themselves. They are often helpful as one piece of information in an application to determine whether an applicant is likely to do well in one's college environment.
There is substantial evidence, though, that test scores for some applicants conceal more than they reveal. And when the requirement of submitting test scores deters some potentially strong students from even applying, then it is time to take a fresh look at the tool.