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Test optional proposal moves forward

On Tuesday night, Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) passed Resolution R0002 by a unanimous 20-0 vote asking Macalester to adopt a ‘test-optional’ admissions policy starting next year.

The two-and-a-half page proposal, written by MCSG President Merrit Stüven ’16, Academic Affairs Chair Remy Eisendrath ’16 and former Academic Affairs Chair Ari Hymoff ’17, makes the case that Macalester should not require applicants to submit standardized test scores with their applications to the school.

The proposal has been submitted to President Brian Rosenberg. He is expected to rule on it before the end of the semester.

The push to make Macalester test optional has been ongoing in some form for several years. There was a major push in the 2014–15 academic year to adopt a test optional policy, but those efforts fizzled.

This year’s MCSG legislative body, along with other interested students, has brought the test optional effort further than it has ever gotten before: catching Rosenberg’s attention.

“Last semester when we were first talking about this, it was going to be a Board of Trustees conversation,” Stüven said. “And then when we came back from Winter Break, we were told that P.B.R. (President Brian Rosenberg) had reconsidered and that he didn’t think that the Board should decide this issue.”

The argument for test optional admissions is fairly simple.

For a number of reasons, affluent students can devote more resources to taking and achieving highly on a standardized test like the SAT or ACT than lower-income students—who in many cases cannot afford tutors, cannot afford to take tests multiple times or cannot easily get to a testing center.

The MCSG proposal data from 2014 showed that for every $50,000 increase in the income of a student’s family, the mean score increased by 97 points. There was a similar correlation for race and parental education.

By making test scores optional in applications, the hope is that a greater number of less privileged students will be encouraged to apply to — and then enroll at — Macalester.

“It’s a question of access to us: freeing up people of low socioeconomic status, or people of a particular race, or first generation students who haven’t had access to schools like Macalester because of low test scores,” Hymoff said.

A number of Macalester’s peer colleges — including Bowdoin College, Bates College, Wesleyan University, Smith College and Pitzer College — already use some form of test optional admissions.

While many of those schools have made the switch recently, some have not required standardized test scores for decades. Bates has been test optional since 1984, Bowdoin since 1969.

All told, more than 50 percent of the U.S. News’ top 100 liberal arts schools in the country have test optional policies. Of the U.S. News’ top 30 liberal arts schools, however, just five are currently test optional.

Thus far, there is little to no evidence that students who choose to submit their test scores perform better academically than their counterparts who do not.

An analysis of 33 colleges and universities covering 120,000 admitted students found just a .005 average difference in GPA and .06 percent difference in graduation rates between students who submitted their test scores and students who did not.

Students who did not submit their scores were more likely to be first generation college students, racial or ethnic minorities, women, Pell Grant recipients and students with learning differences.

A 2013 Macalester statistics honors project by Jing Wen ’13 found a related phenomenon here: SAT scores alone are not particularly predictive of academic performance at Mac, especially after the first year.

Increasing the socioeconomic diversity of Macalester, already well-known for its students’ international diversity, is a major focus of the authors of the proposal.

“It’s been in the Strategic Plan for Macalester to look at this closely,” Eisendrath said. “There’s no bigger question out there for the admissions department than how do you keep diversifying the people who apply and are accepted to the College.”

There is considerable evidence to suggest that going test optional has those desired outcomes.

“Lawrence is a great example,” Stüven said. “They went test optional in the 2006-07 admissions cycle, and they were stagnant at 10 percent students of color. They were at 20 percent by 2017. Wake Forest saw a doubling of Pell Grant recipients three years after implementation.”

The proposal also outlines concerns with the revamped format of the SAT, which took effect last year. The new test, with its increased focus on common core standards, may be even more difficult for students in lower-achieving schools and with fewer resources to prepare for the test.

There are a number of reasons why some students, administrators and admissions offices do not support test optional policies. On the other hand, there are those who do not think that the current proposal MCSG proposal goes far enough.

Some would like to see the Macalester completely test free — removing completely, for all students, standardized test scores from the admissions process.

If the school keeps accepting test scores from applicants who wish to submit them, the argument goes, the average test score for Macalester students will be artificially inflated — further discouraging students with lower test scores from applying.

That last point provides a perverse incentive for schools to go test optional. “A big critique is that some schools do it to boost their rankings, because your average test score increases,” Stüven said. “So there is a critique that some institutions go test optional for that reason.”

The Macalester admissions department, which uses those test scores as one of several major factors in evaluating students, has its doubts about a test optional program.

“Admissions would have a heart attack if we said no testing in one admissions cycle,” Stüven said in a meeting with students last Thursday. “It would be a lot more work for them to be evaluating high schools more critically to be able to contextualize their GPA and extracurriculars.”

“Their argument is that if we can have an additional data point, why wouldn’t we want to have an additional data point?” she said. “Our argument is that if that data point makes you look more favorably upon one student versus another, then that data point really isn’t good to have.”

If the school does go test optional and begins accepting more students from lower-income households, how would it pay for the resulting increase in financial aid? It is, in many ways, the magic question.

“We talked about that a lot in writing this proposal,” Stüven said. “Test optional is not going to be acceptable if we cannot give aid to students who need it who are accepted.”

Stüven suggested an Annual Fund campaign aimed at raising money off of a potential decision to go test optional.

Some current Macalester students, for different reasons, are also opposed to the potential change. Rock Pang ’20, who is from Qingdao, China, said that standardized test scores level the playing field for students from international schools where some GPAs may be inflated.

“Mac doesn’t know a lot of schools in China, Korea or Japan,” Pang said. “They don’t know which schools are better and worse.”

Overall, however, there seems to be support from the student body for the test optional plan.

A January survey of 217 current students found that just over 20 percent feel that the school should use standardized testing in its admissions process, while 30 percent were indifferent. President Rosenberg has expressed interest in holding a student vote in the just-passed resolution.

MCSG and the proposal’s proponents do not see this test optional admissions plan as a cure-all, but rather as one step towards making Macalester more accessible.

“We’re not going to fix college access and systemic barriers to college access with this thing,” Stüven said. “This is not a silver bullet. It’s a step in the right direction to achieving these goals that we all want to see.”

“Our long term goal is to be getting more of those [low-income] students into an institution like Macalester,” Eisendrath said. “That’s what we want to see. Increasing the pool of applicants is, in fact, the first step in [attaining] that goal.”

Stüven pointed to the limited range of high schools Macalester currently recruits in as another major reason why the school has not made significant in roads with lower-income students.

She does, however, feel optimistic about the future of this proposal — and for good reason: in a 2015 interview with The Mac Weekly, Rosenberg said, “I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fan of standardized testing… I would like to see us move to some version of a test optional policy.”

“I don’t want to jinx it, but I feel pretty good,” Stüven said. “[President Rosenberg is] a pretty straightforward person, and when he thinks I’m not on the right path with something, he’s pretty honest about it. That hasn’t happened with this.”

“He [Rosenberg] joked that he would whisper [his decision] to me as he hands me my diploma,” Stüven said. “I assume they would want to know by the time the Board comes to campus, which is the week of graduation.”

Stüven credits the passion of Hymoff for her interest in this issue. She and Rosenberg have a meeting set up for the week following spring break. But with the proposal passed, the decision will ultimately fall to Rosenberg.

“It’s a little bit of a waiting game now,” Stüven said.

March 10, 2017

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