More and more colleges are going SAT-optional

At most elite colleges, Greg Henkes's lower-than-average SAT scores would have hurt his chances of admission. But at one of his top choices, Bates College, they never entered the equation.

That's because Bates, a liberal arts maverick in Maine, lets applicants choose whether or not standardized testing accurately reflects their academic ability. In his case, Henkes decided it didn't. "I ended up not submitting my SAT scores to Bates," Henkes says. "I wanted to be judged as a person, not on how I performed on one standardized exam."

It's the choice a third of Bates applicants make, and an option facing a growing number of prospective students at colleges across America. SAT scores are no longer required at more than a quarter of U.S. News & World Report's Top 100 liberal arts colleges, including Bowdoin, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Union and Dickinson Colleges. These days, students who test poorly-or simply favor subject-based tests like the ACT and SAT IIs to logic-based tests like the SAT-are finding a growing number of colleges willing to judge them on their own terms.

Testing the Test
Administrators at SAT-optional schools say the test is a weak predictor of success in college and can disadvantage minorities and international students. In short, they argue that the SAT serves the opposite function it was designed to perform-instead of flattening the playing field for students of all races and backgrounds, the SAT exaggerates the difference between wealthy students whose families can afford expensive SAT prep courses and poorer students who see the exam for the first time on test day.

Even some of America's best college students are questioning the test. Ross Baird, a University of Virginia senior and winner of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, says, "The SAT is too coachable to be a fair universal standard. People with the time and resources to take test-prep classes generally do better than people who can't afford those advantages." Yale University senior Rafiq Ahmed thinks the SAT is important, as long as other factors are considered. "I think scores are only accurate when they're taken together with a student's educational opportunity and socioeconomic background," he says.

Of course, most premier schools still rely on the SAT-and with more than a million high school students taking the test every year, the SAT isn't likely to lose its title as the nation's most important entrance exam any time soon. Many admissions directors say they need a universal metric like the SAT to help them identify the best candidates, especially with high school students applying to more and more colleges. After all, it's difficult to compare the valedictorian of a no-name high school with the 4.0 student at Phillips Exeter Academy unless they both take the same test. And, for now, the closest thing to a leveler is the SAT.

Yet even schools that require the test are showing caution. "We never use the SAT on its own," says Chris Gruber, the admissions director of Davidson College in North Carolina. "The SAT only helps us confirm other things we already believe about a candidate based on their transcript. It's a piece of the process, but it's about the least important piece." Still, Gruber says, Davidson doesn't want to get rid of its SAT requirement.

Others do. Eleven colleges and universities went SAT-optional last year, including six on the U.S. News Top 100 list, according to FairTest, a research center that opposes standardized testing. Of the 700-plus schools that don't require the SAT, a growing number are elite liberal arts colleges. "SAT-optional," it seems, is no longer a euphemism for "second-rate." "Many of the most selective campuses in the country are concluding that they can make better admissions decisions without the SAT," says Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest.

In place of the SAT, some schools like Hamilton College and Middlebury let students submit subject-based SAT II tests, which reflect material covered in most high schools more closely than the SAT does. With a high enough GPA or class rank, applicants to several large public schools like the University of Texas and George Mason University in Virginia don't need to submit any test scores. Others, like Bates, Bowdoin and Sarah Lawrence College, have waived testing requirements for all applicants.

Numbers Game
Dropping the SAT can actually help colleges compete. Test-optional schools gain an important asset in the U.S. News rankings: if they let applicants choose whether or not to submit their SAT results, the students who don't submit are generally those with lower scores. Thus, these colleges report an "average SAT score" that omits many of their lowest-scoring applicants. Reed College President Colin Diver joked in a New York Times editorial that if he were writing a guidebook for admissions officers on how to improve a school's rankings (ethics aside), he would call his first chapter "SAT Optional."

FairTest disagrees with the suggestion that SAT-optional colleges are pandering to the rankings. "SAT scores only make up five percent of the U.S. News rankings," Schaeffer says. "Going SAT-optional isn't going to change a school's ranking by more than one or two spots." Still, many wonder, if SAT-optional schools are so ideologically opposed to the test, why do they even give applicants the option of submitting their scores? The answer, says Bates Vice President of Enrollment Management William Hiss, is that the SAT matters to some students and not to others. "We do not refuse to accept information. If somebody wants to send us their athletic awards or musical recording, we're glad to have that extra information. The SAT falls into that category. It's not so much that the SAT provides false information, but just that it's not the right information for everyone."

Yet, not all information is helpful, and students show that perhaps these test results are not. Administrators at SAT-optional colleges point to research suggesting that the test provides little or no help in predicting future academic success. At Bates, comparisons between applicants who submitted their SAT scores and those who did not, showed only a .o5 difference in freshman-year GPA and .1 percent difference in graduation rates. Some studies suggest that the SAT may even distract admissions officers from more helpful information in a student's application. In the landmark 1988 book "The Case Against the SAT," researchers James Crouse and Dale Trusheim found that admissions officers who relied solely on high school records picked the students most likely to graduate 73.4 percent of the time. But admissions officers who also incorporated an applicant's SAT score were less successful, choosing to admit the "correct" students only 72.2 percent of the time.

College Board spokesperson Caren Scoropanos insists that most studies show that the SAT and high school grades together provide the best forecaster of a student's success as a freshman in college. "High school grades are certainly predictive. But most of the time, they're more predictive when combined with the SAT," she says. "If I were an admissions director, I would want more information, not less."

Critics of the SAT also wonder about its correlation with wealth, privilege and race. In 2006, African Americans averaged 1291 points out of a possible 2400, while Latinos scored 1371, whites 1582, and Asians 1600. Students whose first language was English scored 83 points higher on average than those for whom it was not. Schaeffer says these statistics prove that the SAT unfairly disadvantages certain test takers. But Scoropanos says the test just measures these discrepancies in racial and socioeconomic performance-it doesn't create them. "The SAT does not widen the gap," she says. "It's unfortunate, but a gap in access exists throughout American higher education."

Regardless of what the SAT predicts or represents, many applicants find comfort in the fact that most of their peers must take the same entrance exam. But applicants to many SAT-optional schools feel differently. "I'm not a natural test-taker," says Henkes, the Bates student. "I'm somebody who excels in the classroom, in a discussion-style environment. I just didn't care that much about the SATs."

Brown is a senior at Emory University. He's glad there isn't a standardized test for journalism.