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Wake Forest Makes the SAT Optional: Good Move, Wake

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Two Universities Dump the SAT;
Move Called "Cynical;" It's Not

The New York Times recently announced that Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Smith College in Massachusetts will make the SAT optional for those applying for admission (Tamar Lewin, "2 Colleges End Entrance Exam Requirement").

George K. Cunningham, a retired psychometrician at the University of Louisville took umbrage: "This move on the part of Wake Forest is a cynical ploy to raise their average SAT scores so they look better to U. S. News (U. S. News & World Report ranks colleges and universities -- GWB). If they really opposed the tests they would not have students submit them nor would they report their school average. By making them optional, they know high scorers will submit their test scores. It is the lower scorers who will not. Thus the average score on the SAT for Wake Forest will go up. The smaller liberal arts schools who have done this have seen nice increases in their scores. Quite cynical, I would say."

Since people in many fields game quantitative measures (TV shows during sweeps months, on-time performance of airlines, police traffic ticket quotas crime statistics, and, most notoriously, McNamara's body counts during the Vietnam war) in order to look better, this is a reasonable view. But wrong. The point of making the SAT optional is to play it down. The Wake press release said they hoped to broaden the base of applicants. I defended the move pointing to Bates College and summarizing the results of an early study of what happened when Bates ended its SAT requirement.

That produced an email from someone who actually worked on a later Bates study in 2004 that covered a 20-year period (www.bates.edu/ip-optional-testing-20years.xml):

Submitters graduate at a .1% rate higher than non-submitters.

Submitters had a GPA .05 points higher than non-submitters.

Bates has doubled its applicant pool.

The academic ratings of admissions staff are accurate -- testing is not necessary to predict academic success (Bates uses it for counseling and placement).

White non-submitters outnumber people of color non-submitters 5-1 (in other words, it's not an affirmative action policy).

Application rates from women, students of color, international students, rural students, students with disabilities, and students with talents in athletics, the arts and debate, have all risen dramatically (that is to say, applications from groups that worry about test scores).

Submitters and non-submitters choose similar majors except that non-submitters are more likely to major in fields that put a premium on creativity and originality.

There are fewer non-submitters in fields that require further standardized testing, but in fields that don't, including business executive officers and finance careers, submitters and non-submitters are equally represented.

The earlier report I had seen also reported no GPA difference even though submitters scored 150 total SAT points higher than non-submitters. These two statistics held up over time. The earlier report also said that the faculty were happier with the incoming freshmen classes under the SAT-optional policy than they had been when the SAT was required.

As with Bates, Wake will require students to submit SAT or ACT scores after they are admitted. If these students are included in averages, then the average will likely decline. However, the SAT statistics at the Wake Forest Website is not an average; it's the range of applicants in the middle 50 percent of scorers, in Wake's case, 1080 to 1400. This statistic would appear to be little affected by the new policy. This is also the statistic that U. S. News uses as one indicator in its rankings; it does not report simple averages.

I doubt that Wake needs to looks better to U. S. News. It is 30th among national universities and has over 9,000 applicants for its 1,200 freshman openings.

The SAT's principal developer in 1926, Carl Campbell Brigham, viewed it as a "mere supplement" to the rest of the high school record and warned against giving it too much weight. Would that the nation had heeded his warning.

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