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Why Test-Optional Colleges Skip the ACT and SAT

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pencil and SAT answer sheet

What is a “test-optional” college?

It is a college and/or university that de-emphasizes the use of standardized tests and picks a substantial number of applicants who are recent graduate U.S. high schools without using the SAT or ACT.

Other colleges exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria from submitting ACT or SAT scores, while others require scores but claim to use them only for placement purposes or to conduct research studies.

Test-optional colleges have long been a controversial topic. When a college allows students to opt out of reporting their standardized test scores, do they have an ulterior motive? Many college counselors and admissions experts have accused them of trying to either raise their application numbers or viewing students differently who chose not to submit scores. Human nature makes it natural to wonder why a student made the decision to not submit scores, and that could subconsciously affect college admissions officers' decisions about accepting a student.

Historically, many of the colleges who chose the test-optional approach have been smaller institutions like Allegheny College in Pennsylvania or Bryant University in Rhode Island. Colleges like these were able to keep close tabs on the results and determine whether this practice affected student performance. These small colleges search for qualified applicants using other admission criteria.

But a recent change in the test-optional landscape came when the University of Chicago decided to add their name to the list offering the class of 2018 the option. It is the first highly ranked university to do so, which means that other colleges will be watching closely to see if this decision affects admission numbers or student performance.

The university made the decision after spending time evaluating admission files of students who underperform at their college, James G. Nondorf, Dean of Admissions, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. After identifying what parts of the application could have indicated a student might struggle, Nondorf said, “It certainly wasn’t testing.” He explained: “The transcript tells such a powerful story for us. We went from department to department to see who the stars were. Does testing tell us who’s going to be the best art historian? The answer is no.” The college made the decision to follow their research and make the move to test-optional.

Do test scores truly predict student success?

Colleges that use SAT or ACT scores to evaluate a student’s ability to succeed in college argue that the scores help them separate the strong students from the ones who might not succeed in a college environment. But according to the University of Chicago’s own research, that may not be the case. Is it time to evaluate students based on their overall application: academics, extracurriculars, essay and recommendations and drop the testing altogether?

Some colleges and admissions advocates disagree. They believe the test is a good indicator of academic performance. They use those scores to draw a line in the sand and attract what they believe are the top students. But is a student’s ability to take a test and score well an indicator of their ability to achieve success? Many believe a test score should not define a student. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, over 1,000 colleges have chosen to take the test-optional path and are listed at sites such as FairTest.org and PrepScholar. For many students, these colleges offer hope for college acceptance and a future. Could one of these colleges be the best choice for your student?

Test optional schools include all types of colleges and all ranges of exclusivity. Here are some examples; for others go to www.TeenLife.com.

American University

Bard College

Berklee College of Music

Bowdoin College

Clark University

George Mason University

The George Washington University

Mt. Holyoke College

Rollins College

Smith College

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.