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Harvard study says SATs should be optional. Here's why.

Standardized testing should be optional in college admissions, recommends a new report released Wednesday.

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    A student in Newton, Mass., takes a sample SAT test during her test prep class. A new report recommends making standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional, or at least less important, in the admissions process.
    John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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High school students may have one less thing to worry about during the stressful college application process. Standardized testing should be optional, or at least de-emphasized, in college admissions, according to recommendations from a new report released Wednesday.

The report, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and endorsed by more than 80 colleges and universities, proposes sweeping changes in the applications process designed to de-emphasize personal achievement, and instead highlight community involvement and care for others.

The goal of the proposed guidelines is to make applications less about grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, thereby opening opportunities to a broader group of students.

“Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University and one of the report’s endorsers, told The Washington Post.

Among the changes suggested by the report, entitled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions":

  • Emphasize quality over quantity with extracurricular activities and advanced placement classes
  • Factor in family and community responsibilities to capture the contributions of low-income and working-class students
  • Challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges

Perhaps biggest change the report recommends is making standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional, or at least less important, in the admissions process.

"I do believe that most students stress out over their SAT scores much more than they need to," Stu Schmill, the dean of admissions at MIT, and a report endorser, told NBC's "Today" show.

"I think our students are just doing too much,'' he added. "They feel like they have to do too much, and they really don't. We want to send this message that they can pull back on that a little bit."

In fact, going test-optional has become an increasingly popular move in higher education. More than 850 four-year colleges and universities have test-optional policies, according to FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. For many, it's a move to level the playing field and broaden diversity in the student body.

Some minority groups, including African-American and Latino students, have struggled with the SAT, according to test score data from the College Board. There's also a stark correlation between family income and test scores, with lower-income households producing lower-scoring students and vice-versa.

"The test-optional policy should strengthen and diversify an already outstanding applicant pool and will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income households," Laurie Koehler, who leads enrollment efforts at George Washington University, said in a statement announcing the school's new test-optional policy last July.

But some reports suggest there may be an ulterior motive in going test-optional.

That's because dropping the standardized test requirement usually increases applications, according to a 2014 study at the University of Georgia. In theory, this allows schools to reject more applicants and appear more selective, which increases their ranking with the all-important U.S. News & World Report annual survey.

What's more, low-scoring students are less likely to submit their test scores to universities. With low scores out of the application pool, the average test score – also important in a university's ranking – goes up, as does the school's rank. 

“We went test optional because we felt access to our institution was being impeded by requiring test scores," says Lee Ann Backlund, dean of admission and financial aid at Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "There are no ulterior motives other than to provide access to the institution. Affluent families can afford test prep courses and have the ability to send their students to higher quality schools. It is also about what information the admissions office needs to predict student performance. We found that grades, involvement in school and one’s community were the best indicator of student performance.” 

Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, said the school toyed with the idea of going test-optional but ultimately decided to keep the requirement.

"Standardized exams, if treated properly, do have their place in the admissions process," he says. "My experience over the years is that the majority of test scores are in line with classroom performance, within reason, of course."

Still, he says there is a limit to what standardized exams can tell an admissions officer.

"When schools start using them for 'cut lines,' that's where they're abused as they were never intended for that purpose."

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