Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fair Test should use more honest reporting practices

In 2009, our local newspaper printed an article reporting that Wake Forest University had decided to join the ranks of “test optional” schools.  The university no longer requires applicants to submit an ACT or SAT score, although students may submit scores if they wish.  This, and subsequent articles, both in print and online have tried to give the impression that Wake Forest is part of a growing trend.  In fact, someone following this topic may begin to wonder if the days of college admissions testing are numbered. 

When you read the articles, the name of one organization keeps cropping up.  Fair Test is a non-profit group that campaigns against standardized testing.  A visit to the web site,, reveals that they are against all forms of standardized testing for a variety of reasons, some of which are valid. Calling for the end of college entrance exams is only a piece of their mission.  It is, however, an important piece, and one section of their website is devoted to their campaign against using test scores as a part of college admissions decisions.

As part of this argument, their website includes a page of 800+ test-optional schools.  The message is two-fold:  first, if these schools can make admissions decisions without test scores then everyone can, and second, there are so many schools out there that don’t require test scores that a student can avoid the college entrance exams by choosing a school from this list. Eight hundred is a lot of schools.  In fact, if you consider that there are between 2000 and 2500 four-year institutions in the United States, more than 800 would represent a significant percentage of the overall number of schools.  However, a quick glance at the first page showed quite a long list of…art schools?  Did fine art institutes ever consider a student’s test scores? Wouldn’t they be more interested in a portfolio or an audition?  Also right there on the first page was at least one theological seminary (some theological seminaries don’t grant undergraduate degrees and those that do grant a very limited number), and – this is the one that made my jaw drop – a for-profit university. There were also a number of colleges that I had never heard of.

At this point I began slogging through the list in an effort to determine which schools were included.  School after school turned out to be, upon closer examination, a school of the arts, a theological seminary or a for-profit institution. There were also a good number of tiny liberal arts colleges, a few of which have apparently closed their doors since the list was compiled.  I did, however, run into a handful of prominent universities that are test-optional.  After several hours of this activity I wondered if there was a faster method of determining exactly how many colleges and universities could be legitimately considered “test optional.”  That’s when I found page xxxv of Fisk Guide to Colleges 2013.

According to the Fisk Guide, of all of the colleges and universities in the country, there are about 175 that could be considered “selective.”  Fisk includes all of these in their guide along with another 100+ schools that they consider “interesting.”  They do not include fine arts schools, theological seminaries, or for-profit universities. That part of the weeding process had already been done. This year, they included a page listing the schools described in the guide that are test optional or “test flexible.” The actual list is preceded by five explanatory paragraphs a few of which sounded like they could have been lifted from a Fair Test press release, including a sentence that said the number of test-optional schools had reached “a critical mass,” followed by “For the first time, students who wish to avoid getting involved in the admissions test rat-race can do so while still enjoying a range of colleges and universities from which to choose.”

We’ll talk about the rat-race in a minute, but first, a word about “test flexible.”  It seems that some schools are willing to let you opt out of submitting SAT or ACT scores if you submit your SAT II, AP or IB test scores instead. Oddly, these schools are included in the list.  I don’t get that. What issues does the SAT test have that the AP test doesn’t? They are written and administered by the same company.  Little Johnny flunked his ACT because “he doesn’t test well,” but he aced his IB exams? How did that happen? I can assure you that at my house there was way more anxiety over the AP exams than over the SAT. With the SAT you at least have a chance to take it again. Make a separate list of “test flexible” schools if you want, but we need to remove those schools from the “test optional” list.  When we do, we are down to 60 schools. 

Now a word about the “rat-race” of admissions testing.  Here’s the thing:  If only 175 of the schools in the country are “selective” that means the vast majority of the schools are NOT selective.  For every school that admits fewer than half of its applicants, there are at least a dozen that will take just about anyone with a pulse.  Many of them are fine schools.  Let’s take the University of Mississippi for example.  Ole Miss is a venerable institution and you can get an excellent education there.  Many students dream of one day attending Ole Miss and you can see why they would. That said, the school admits over three quarters of its applicants.  It’s not much of a stretch for them to say, “You know what, honey, you don’t have to send your test scores if you don’t want to.”  Even before they decided to be “test optional” I imagine many of their applicants weren’t sweating over the SAT’s because they figured they could get a good enough score anyway.  I know that there is a highly visible group of students who are scratching and clawing for every point on the test because they want to apply to a top-tier school, but I don’t think that’s the norm. I think that for an awful lot of students their dream school is within easy reach.

So. Let’s remove from the list those schools that are not “selective” on the grounds that for a non-selective school removing the test requirement doesn’t make much difference in the admissions process. This leaves us with 20 or so schools.  Seventeen are small liberal arts colleges.  Many of these are highly selective, but as they are small and they have few applicants (relatively speaking,) they can use a much more personalized admissions process.  If a small, liberal arts college is what you are looking for, then having these test optional choices may be exactly what you need. 

The remaining three schools are:  University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University and Worchester Polytechnic Institute.  Worchester Polytech is small and quite unique.  I don’t think other engineering schools are going to drop a test requirement just because that seems to be working out for Worchester, but if your scores are terrible and you want to be an engineer, this might be the school for you.

The University of Texas at Austin is interesting.  Like twelve other schools on the list, they have a footnote which says that students are required to submit their test scores “if minimum GPA and/or class rank is not met.”  The other schools came off the list when we eliminated the non-selective schools.  So what is the GPA/class rank requirement at UT-Austin?  Apparently, by state law, all public universities must automatically accept any high school graduate that is a) a resident of Texas and b) graduated in the top 10% of his or her class. You don’t meet both of those requirements? Then you better take a test.

So it seems that if you want to attend a small, liberal arts college, you do have a range of test optional choices.  If you want to attend a major research university that is not particularly selective you may have a range of test optional choices depending on where you live. If you want to attend a selective, major research university, you have Wake Forest.  This can hardly be considered a “critical mass.” While other colleges may eventually drop their testing requirements, I think college entrance exams will be a component for most students for at least the next decade.

I think it is dishonest to suggest that the number of test optional schools is so large that students need not take a college admissions exam. By blatantly padding their list with names of schools that should not be included, or that should be included in separate lists, Fair Test invites questions about their integrity and detracts from their overall message.


  1. As an SAT tutor, I concur - and I thank you for your research. I've found that not only do "test optional" schools often require a different measure of achievement (like a few SAT Subject tests or a few graded papers), but I think students seriously limit their choices by avoiding the SATs or ACTs. Sure, one or two schools they apply to may be test-optional, but what if they fall in love with a "SAT required" school senior year? By not taking the SATs, they've eliminated the possibility of applying to that dream school. Guidance counselors who advise students that they need not take SATs or ACTs do not to their charges a service.