Who's benefiting from test-optional colleges?

One of the most unpleasant roadblocks that teenagers face when getting into college is taking the ACT or SAT admissions tests.

Studies have shown that the most important factors in predicting college success aren't standardized test scores, but high school grades and the rigor of a student's high school classes. In contrast, standardized test scores are highly correlated with income.

On average, for instance, students whose parents make $150,000 a year are going to perform better on the SAT than teenagers who live in households making $100,000 and so on down the income ladder.

In the face of criticism about the relevance and fairness of the standardized tests, a large number of schools over the years have become test-optional, which generally means students can apply for admission without submitting their scores. Just this week, Bryn Mawr College, an elite women's college, became the latest school to make the ACT and SAT optional.

While more than 800 institutions are test-optional, a significant number are open-enrollment schools that allow the vast majority of applicants to attend. Many of the most selective schools in the test-optional lineup are private liberal arts colleges. A new study suggests that even though one of the main motivations that these colleges cite in adopting a test-optional policy is creating more diverse campuses by improving the admission chances of low-income and minority students, they're falling short of that target.

Andrew Belasco, CEO of College Transitions, a college consulting firm in Athens, Ga., conducted the recently published study that looked at 180 selective private schools including 32 that have test-optional policies. Overall, Belasco says, the main beneficiaries of the test-optional policy could be the private colleges themselves.

A peak into test-optional policies

When schools become test-optional, it encourages more students who might have previously considered their chances of admission to be weak, to apply. More applications can lead to higher admission rejection rates, which make schools look more selective. At the same time, the published test scores of individual colleges could rise because freshmen with lower scores never submit them.

What's controversial and new in Belasco's findings is this: Low-income and minority enrollments did not see any more gains at the test-optional colleges than at the schools that still require the standardized tests. Belasco said this discovery surprised him.

"Our findings suggest that test-optional admissions policies, as a whole, have done little to meet their manifest goals of expanding educational opportunity for low-income and minority students. However, we find evidence that test-optional policies fulfill a latent function of increasing the perceived selectivity and status of these institutions. In doing so, these policies may serve to reproduce and maintain the current social structure -- and its inequalities -- within U.S. higher education."

Dueling test-optional reports

Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest.org, a group that advocates against standardized testing, said the new research conflicts with another report conducted by William C. Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College, which is test-optional. That research concluded that students who took advantage of test-optional policies and enrolled were more likely to be women, minorities, low-income and first-generation students.

The two studies, however, focused on different things. Hiss's research looked at postsecondary outcomes such as grade-point averages and graduation rates of low-income and minority students and concluded that no significant differences existed between those who submitted test scores and those who didn't.

Based on who was more likely to keep their test scores a secret, Hiss suggested that test-optional policies have improved the enrollment of underrepresented groups. Belasco, however, says results of the earlier research do not support that conclusion.

None of this means some schools haven't made strides in becoming more diverse since making tests optional. At Lawrence University, for instance, the percentage of minority domestic students increased from 10 percent when it rolled out a test-optional policy in 2006 to 25 percent today. Coupled with its testing policy, said Ken Anselment, dean of admissions, the Wisconsin college also began partnering with nonprofits working with underrepresented teenagers.

Test-optional policies and wealthy students

Tony Bankston, dean of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan University and a skeptic of test-optional policies, believes some of the main beneficiaries of the no-test admission route are likely affluent and wealthy students.

"Everybody is struggling with enrollment, and colleges are looking more and more for students who have the ability to pay a substantial portion of college," Bankston observed. Test-optional policies open the door to take wealthy students who would have been borderline applicants. "I think a lot of this is going on behind the scenes," he suggested.

If your child is interested in a test-optional school, you can find the complete list of these institutions at FairTest.org.

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