Going test-optional: we are lagging behind

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As of October 2016, just over 50% of US News’ top 100 liberal arts colleges do not require standardized test scores. Our peer institutions such as Middlebury, Bowdoin, Colorado College, Bates, Trinity, Whitman and Gustavus Adolphus are among these schools. Macalester is not. [Editor’s note: Colorado College is test-flexible, not test-optional]

In January 2015, Macalester’s Strategic Planning Committee published a 10 year outline titled “Thrive: The Future of Macalester.” The plan featured eleven strategic priorities, one of which is particularly pertinent to this discussion: “Increase the diversity within our student body, faculty, and staff, with a particular emphasis on increasing the presence and retention within our community of traditionally underserved populations.” In the outline’s appendix, the Committee offers a specific suggestion for achieving this priority: “[g]iven the direct correlation between standardized test scores and family income, as well as the relative lack of predictive power of those tests, join an increasing number of our peers in becoming ‘test optional’ for applicants.” (Italics added)

In March 2015, The Mac Weekly published an interview with President Brian Rosenberg. When asked about admissions practices in light of the strategic priorities, PBR spoke out strongly: “I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fan of standardized testing… the extent to which it correlates with socioeconomic status and the extent to which it doesn’t correlate as well as high school performance with college performance—it really troubles me.”

It should trouble you too. The statements made by the Committee and President Rosenberg are supported by studies that have shown that standardized test scores are strongly linked to race, parental education, family wealth and zip code. They are also not as predictive of college success as widely assumed, as demonstrated within the context of our own institution by the 2013 Honors Thesis of former Macalester student Jing Wen. Wen’s thesis showed that SAT and ACT scores were, on their own, not predictive of academic success at Macalester.

Former Head of Admissions at Bates College turned test-optional researcher Bill Hiss reported that admissions deans at test optional universities across the country reported “almost without exception” an improved capacity to reach underrepresented students. This is due to many factors, including that many underrepresented students who would be good academic fits for institutions like Macalester don’t apply because of prohibitively high standardized test score averages.

Despite growing support, some scholars question the effectiveness of test optional policies as well as the colleges’ motive for adopting them—speculating that these institutions do so for a rankings and/or publicity boost. However, Wake Forest Dean of Admissions Martha Allman contextualizes the test optional surge well; the policy is not a “silver bullet for increasing diversity [but rather] first step to removing barriers.” Despite consideration in the Strategic Plan and strong support from the President, Macalester has yet to make a change.

To clarify our stance, we envision a Macalester College that does not require standardized tests. Going test-optional would, as Martha Allman stated, not be a silver bullet. It would be one step in a continued effort to strengthen our institution’s values and decrease structural barriers to entry into higher education faced by many students. Decreasing our reliance on standardized testing would help us to attract a more diverse student body including first-generation college students, economically disadvantaged students and students with learning disabilities or unique talents that are not represented when taking an intensive, specific, three-hour multiple choice test. Moving away from standardized tests would require work and resources, and going test optional would certainly not be a quick fix, but it is an investment that would surely pay off.

In the aforementioned 2015 interview with TMW, PBR stated, “I would like to see us move to some version of a test-optional policy… it’s a discussion we absolutely need to have.” It is almost 2017. Let us, the students, demand such a change.

If you want to get involved or talk further about test-optional, reach out to us via email.

Correction: This article originally suggested that Colorado College has a test-optional policy. It has a test-flexible policy.