Going 'test optional' the new trend for colleges

Jun 10, 2015

Le Moyne College announced this week that it is going test optional. They’re joining a growing movement that includes other New York schools that are not requiring SAT or ACT test scores in their admission process. 

Carol Geraldino moved to the United States from Puerto Rico two years ago. She says the educational system was different there, and that included preparations for the SAT, the standardized test that for years has played a big role in the selection process at colleges and universities in this country. By the time she was settled in the U.S. she had little time to prepare, but took the test anyway. 

“Like, it was a shameful score for me.” 

So armed with that shameful score, Geraldino went college hunting. 

"Most of the schools I applied to were test optional so I don’t have to go through and look at the score again." 

Geraldino just finished up her freshman year as a government major at Ithaca College, which went test optional a few years ago.  

Eric McGuire, vice president for enrollment and communication at Ithaca College, says the school made the decision after comparing all the data submitted by admitted students -- the students’ grade point average, strength of curriculum and class rank. And they found that the SAT score didn’t really add anything of value to that information when they were trying to figure out if a student would be successful at the college. 

"When we thought about it, we knew that our applications could improve if we reduced that obstacle. We also knew that our diversity, based upon some case studies could improve, which were goals for the institution. And those goals outweighed the very minimal predictive ability of standardized testing in our process,” said McGuire.

Ithaca College is among the upstate New York colleges that have gone test optional.
Credit Brantley / Flickr

After going test optional, Ithaca College saw double-digit gains in the number of applications, as well as a three percent increase in the number of applications of students from lower socio economic backgrounds, which remains. 

"It’s actually grown since then. We’ve found sort of a snowball effect that happens. Once you have a sort of critical mass, it continues to build momentum for you,” said McGuire.

The story is much the same at Utica College, says Utica admissions officer Donna Shaffner, which went test optional three years ago.  

"This past year we had a 20 percent increase in our applications and we have had a 60 percent increase in our deposits over last year," said Shaffner.

Shaffner says test optional may not be the only reason for the increase, but it did change the way admissions worked, with the school judging students in a more holistic way. 

"You’re not looking at scores to evaluate them, but rather, their essay, what their experiences have been, the conversations we’ve had, the interview, and each of those bring a more personal experience to the student and so it draws them closer to Utica, as an institution they’re interested in.” 

This drive towards test optional is not really new. Heidi Green, president of the Onondaga County Directors of Guidance Services Group, and a counselor at the Fayetteville-Manlius School District, remembers when she started in the job in the mid-1990s, and there were about 30, mostly small liberal arts schools, that were test optional. 

“Now, though, there are over 800 schools on the list,” says Green.

One of the reasons they are jumping on the bandwagon, says Green, are studies that show that students from higher income families that take these tests, which include language, math and writing components, do better than students from lower socio-economic levels. 

“So there’s a concern of bias, and that’s evident in those test scores. And so colleges that are trying to recruit diverse classes -- whether that’s male/female, racial diversity, income levels -- they’re not possibly recruiting the most diverse classes they can. And they’re feeling like test scores aren’t the best predictor of success at the college level.” 

So where does that leave high school guidance counselors like Green, who’s advising at a suburban school where most of the students who graduate are applying to college?

“My advice to students typically is, if your score is under the average of the admitted score at that school, whether it’s test optional or not, don’t send it. You’re not going to get any bonus points for submitting a score that’s lower than their average. If it’s above the average, you’ve got nothing to lose by submitting it,"  says Green.

As for the future, experts agree that SATs and ACTs  are here to stay for many schools, especially large institutions, and highly selective schools. But for students who find this three-hour Saturday morning test something they have no control over, ditching the exam can ease some of the anxiety in an already stress-filled college selection process,

“When they look at schools that say, we don’t require the test, immediately the shoulders go down, there’s a sigh of relief and they look at fit. They look at does the school fit me, rather than, am I able to get in, because my test scores might be just under what the average the school is looking for.”

And that makes the most sense to Geraldine, the Ithaca College student we started this story with. 

"Standardized testing is just, excuse me, it’s just stupid. Because like, you cannot judge a person and their smarts just by a test. You need to judge them by their daily life and how they react to different encounters they have.”