The past decade has seen a hostile reaction against U.S. college admissions testing. Many people question the influence of the test prep industry; according to a 2009 paper released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), some parents pay upwards of $1,000 for test prep classes or $200 an hour for a personal standardized testing tutor. Widespread critiques have focused on the persistent socioeconomic gap in terms of scores: according to a study released this April by The Education Trust, there is nearly a 100-point gap in SAT scores between black and poor students and white students, even though these students are half as likely to take the test (and the students who do take the test tend to be the highest performers within their groups).
Others deride the format of the tests, criticizing in particular the essay sections of the SAT and ACT for not reflecting real writing skills. Both the SAT and the ACT have responded to this argument with overhauls to the tests.
Still others, including many inside college admissions offices, question whether the tests even fulfill their stated intention: to quantify the college preparedness of prospective students.
According to FairTest.org, a website devoted to reforming the standardized testing industry, over 800 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. provide applicants with alternatives to taking the SAT and the ACT. Many of these institutions, the so-called “test-optional” schools, do not require applicants to submit standardized tests at all.
In May of this year, Wesleyan joined these schools and instituted a test-optional policy, beginning with the class of 2019. Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Nancy Hargrave Meislahn said this decision was made largely due to ongoing discussions about the role standardized testing should have in admissions.
“The climate around standardized testing in general raises a lot of questions,” Meislahn said. “Another issue that had been an issue for us for a long time is the continuing growth in the whole test prep industry, further advantaging those with disadvantages. So the time felt right for us to do something that is very consistent with Wesleyan philosophy, in terms of students having a choice in their education and, in this case, in how they present themselves to the admissions committee.”
Furthermore, this February, the NACAC released a study analyzing the effect of test-optional admissions in 33 schools—20 private colleges and universities, six public state universities, five “minority-serving institutions,” and two art institutions—that found little-to-no correlation between graduation rates and cumulative GPAs among admitted students who did not submit standardized testing scores and those who did, despite substantial disparity in the scores themselves.
Although the general atmosphere regarding admissions exams affected Wesleyan’s decision to go test-optional, Meislahn said this report was the catalyst.
“It’s the combination of all of those things [the climate, changes to the SAT and ACT, and the report],” she said, when asked what caused the shift in policy. “But the trigger, if you will, was this new research—this very compelling new research—in February.”
Now that the policy has been implemented, the question is how it will affect the applicant pool, as well as the admissions process at Wesleyan.
Meislahn emphasized that the review process prior to this year has been holistic and heavily focused on academic classwork, something she pointed out the test-optional policy does not affect.
“Our process is always focused, first and foremost and primarily, on the student’s day-to-day work in the classroom,” she said. “And so that isn’t going to change, never will change. It’s the most important [thing]… One of the important measures for us is to bring students to Wesleyan who have a background and are capable of working across the curriculum. So the strength of work in the humanities, in social sciences, and math, and foreign language; those kinds of evaluations of a student’s work… And so that will continue.”
The biggest change, Meislahn said, will be the number of items the admissions committee will have to analyze.
“For us, scores [are] something that we [have] viewed in that context, after we have looked at the student’s academic work: the track record, if you want to think of it that way,” she said. “And so, we’re predicting that for something like a third of the students in the pool this year, we won’t have that additional information. And that will be the change.”
Meislahn said that the Wesleyan admissions office has contacted schools that have gone test-optional—she mentioned Bowdoin and Smith, in particular—in order to learn how the switch will impact admissions. She received that estimate, of one-third of applicants refraining from sending in scores, from talking to officials at Bowdoin, which, according to its website, has been test-optional since 1969.
The main difference, she said, was in terms of the applicant pool.
“There are students who clearly have not been applying historically because they were concerned; the score was perhaps seen as a barrier,” she said.
The NECAC report supports this. Pell Grant recipients and first-generation college students, as well as black and Hispanic students, chose not to submit scores five to 10 percent more often, on average, than other students.
Of course, this change will not only affect underrepresented students. Twenty-nine percent of white applicants still chose not to submit their scores, just below the average of 32 percent among all students.
Besides the increased diversity of the applicant pool, the change to test-optional will likely yield an overall boost in applications. According to a 2009 New York Times story by Lynn O’Shaughnessy on some of the criticisms of test-optional, colleges usually experience a boost of 10 to 20 percent in the number of applicants, starting the very first year a college uses the altered admissions.
The critics O’Shaughnessy cites argue that this boost in applications, as well as being able to not report all of the numbers—particularly the lower scores—allows institutions to artificially appear more competitive: A higher percentage of applicants are rejected, due to the increased number who apply, and the least quantitatively competitive of those don’t have their scores reported.
Meislahn dismissed this view, stating that the issue of access and the chance to diversify the applicant pool was Wesleyan’s focus, rather than concern about the school’s ranking.
“[Other] schools report that they see a more diverse applicant pool,” she said. “In addition to being the right thing to do, the right time, it’s also an access issue.”
How successful Wesleyan will be at achieving that more diverse applicant pool and larger numbers of applicants is another question, one that lends itself to speculation. Some students have applied already—the application deadline for Early Decision I was Nov. 15—but none will hear back until Dec. 12.
All that is clear now is that applicants have an added amount of choice in how their applications will be seen by the admissions committee, a point that Meislahn emphasized.
“I think that we all feel that part of the reason this makes sense for Wesleyan is that… it aligns so well with a lot of things in Wesleyan’s educational philosophy: access, choice,” Meislahn said. “Those are things that I like to say are in Wesleyan’s DNA. And so this policy, because the timing was right, lines those things up. But how it will impact the application pool is absolutely yet to be seen.”