Starting next year, high school students will no longer have to worry about taking the ACT or SAT tests to get into two liberal arts colleges in the Twin Cities.
Augsburg University in Minneapolis and Concordia University in St. Paul have both decided to stop requiring college-entrance exams, as part of a growing national movement toward “test-optional” admissions.
Across the country, hundreds of schools have dropped the ACT or SAT requirement in the face of mounting concerns that the tests pose an unfair barrier for some students, especially from low-income and minority groups.
Nate Gorr, the interim vice president in charge of admissions at Augsburg, said the change is designed to level the playing field for those “without the money or time to get private tutors, take prep classes or take the exam multiple times.” It’s also a recognition, he said, that standardized tests don’t always capture a student’s potential and can discourage good candidates from applying to college.
“It’s not serving those kids well, and it’s not serving Augsburg well as we become more and more diverse,” he said. He noted that low test scores also can hurt their chances for scholarships. Under the new policy, students will have the option of including their test scores, or omitting them, when they apply for the freshman class of 2019.
Every year, tens of thousands of Minnesota high school students take the ACT or SAT exams, which still are required by most four-year colleges and universities. But some, such as Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, have been test-optional for a decade or more.
Heather Moenck, student body president at Metro State, said she’s happy to see more schools joining the movement. “For a lot of students, we’re really street-smart and we’re really good at applying the knowledge, but we’re not good at these tests,” said Moenck, 22, a senior from St. Paul.
Although she was an honor student in high school, Moenck said that her ACT score fell below average, which might have worked against her at another college.
“There is a really good chance that I wouldn’t have gotten into a university, or I would have been wait-listed,” she said. Instead, she will earn her second bachelor’s degree at Metro State this summer, before heading to graduate school in social work. To her, a standardized test “is just a barrier for people who have the potential to do great things.”
Without the college-entrance exams, admissions officials say they rely on other tools — such as high school grades, interviews and letters of recommendation — to decide whom to admit.
“It really does use a holistic admission process,” said Kimberly Craig, the head of admissions at St. Paul’s Concordia University, which will go test-optional in 2019. Those who opt out of their test scores, she noted, will be asked to write an essay instead.
Debate over exams
The first college entrance exams, which debuted in the 1920s, were once promoted as a way to level the playing field by identifying students by their academic aptitude rather than family connections. The exams became a staple of college admissions after World War II, when veterans — and eventually their children — started flooding into higher education. By the 1990s, though, years of concern about racial bias in standardized testing were fueling a backlash.
In 1998, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, reported that “the focus on test scores deters otherwise qualified minority, low-income, first generation, female and other students from applying.” It also found that more than 275 four-year colleges had already adopted test-optional policies, and that “many report their applicant pools and enrolled classes have become more diverse without any loss in academic quality.”
While the numbers have grown, some say the test-optional movement has yet to prove its claims.
Paul Sackett and Nathan Kuncel, psychology professors at the University of Minnesota, are among the skeptics. In March, they co-authored an essay called “The Truth about the SAT and ACT,” arguing that “standardized tests tell us a lot about an applicant’s likely academic performance and eventual career success.” By dropping the tests, they argue, colleges are cutting themselves off from useful information.
Sackett, who has studied ACT and SAT tests with grants from the test sponsors, said there’s little evidence that test-optional admissions actually boost diversity. “The basic finding is diversity is increasing at all schools, whether they’re test-optional or not,” he said. He pointed to one of the largest studies so far, of 180 liberal arts colleges in 2015, that concluded colleges “did not make any progress in narrowing these diversity-related gaps after they adopted test-optional policies.”
If anything, Sackett said, research has shown that going test-optional can benefit colleges in other ways: Their applications go up, and so do their national rankings — because their average test scores may appear higher when students can choose not to submit them.
But advocates point to other studies, including one this spring, that suggest the change does open doors to more minority and low-income students, and that they succeed at equivalent rates.
“I think the impact has been very positive,” said Richard Aune, dean of admissions at Gustavus Adolphus, which dropped its ACT requirement in 2007. The old policy, he believes, was scaring off “excellent candidates” whose test scores didn’t measure up. Now, about 20 percent of applicants omit their test scores, he said, and their academic records are almost indistinguishable from other applicants.
Gorr, of Augsburg, thinks that students from all backgrounds “will be relieved to know the test ... won’t carry the significance it once did.”