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Loyola joins SAT-optional colleges

Loyola College's Jesuit tradition calls for it to serve students who did not start with every economic, social or geographic advantage.

Widespread research, meanwhile, shows that standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT favor those from privileged backgrounds and that such tests are less predictive of college success than excellent grades and a rigorous course load in high school.

So, in search of a more diverse and accomplished student body, Loyola has joined a growing list of colleges and universities that no longer require applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score. Among Maryland schools, Goucher College, Salisbury University, Washington College, St. John's College and McDaniel College also practice forms of "test-optional" admissions.

Officials from these schools say they've received more applications - and some say they have improved the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies -since making the switch. Because of such positive examples, advocates of test-optional admissions believe their cause has gained tremendous momentum in recent years.

"We have a very strong retention rate, the students are performing well, our faculty is satisfied," said Ellen Neufeld, vice president of student affairs at Salisbury. "My mind draws a blank when I try to think of anything negative associated with it."

Test-optional policies might calm the widespread SAT anxiety felt by high school juniors and seniors, added Florence Hines, vice president of enrollment management at McDaniel.

"We're telling them, 'If you're worried about being a poor test-taker, don't worry about the test,' " Hines said. "We want students to know that it was never a big enough factor that we couldn't just let it go. We can take away one of the things that freaks them out the most."

Skeptics of the test-optional approach argue that grade-point averages are relative because of the wide disparity in quality among high schools. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT help admissions officers to put high school performance in perspective, advocates say.

"There is ample evidence that the SAT does an excellent job of predicting college grades," said Brian O'Reilly, spokesman for the College Board's SAT program.

O'Reilly said he doesn't understand why college admissions officers wouldn't want as much information as possible about applicants. No college would allow an applicant to submit grades for some classes and not others, he said, so why would the school count the SAT as a positive for many students but ignore it for many others?

O'Reilly said a recent College Board study of 110 colleges and universities found that the test predicted college performance almost as well as high school GPAs. He said the test did a better job than grades of predicting college performance for students of color.

Critics of the test-optional approach add that some colleges promote a rise in average SAT scores after adopting the policy. This is misleading because a college effectively eliminates most of the low scores from its applicant pool by making the test optional.

Despite such criticisms, almost one-quarter of the nation's top 100 liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report, have moved to a test-optional approach, and other highly selective universities such as Wake Forest and New York universities have also joined the pack. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), a Boston-based organization that promotes test-optional policies, lists 819 schools that use some form of test-optional admissions.

Last year, a panel led by William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, recommended that colleges and universities move away from their reliance on standardized tests. Fitzsimmons said that Harvard might eventually make the tests optional.

"We're getting to a point where there is a critical mass of test-optional choices," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest. "Students can select from a list of the nation's finest institutions, public or private."

Admissions counselors emphasize that test scores aren't the be-all and end-all, but no matter how often they say it, students dwell on average SAT scores. Faced with the cold, hard numbers, some high achievers with mundane test scores feel dissuaded from applying, counselors say, which is the last thing colleges want.

"We want to give them the option to say, 'This score represents me,' or 'No, this doesn't represent what I've done inside the classroom and outside,' " said Elena D. Hicks, director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola.

Most test-optional colleges and universities allow students to submit test scores if they want, and the majority of applicants (about 75 percent at Salisbury and Goucher and 85 percent to 90 percent at McDaniel) include an SAT or ACT score. Admissions counselors at Maryland schools that have made the switch say scores don't carry any less weight than they did when they were mandatory.

Students applying for full-time undergraduate admission in fall 2010 will be the first to benefit from Loyola's policy, which will begin as a four-year pilot project. Loyola officials expect a rapid impact on the types of applications they receive.

Though test-optional advocates list increased applications as one benefit, Hicks said, "I don't necessarily think of it as a marketing tool. I think of it as a way of helping students to put their best foot forward."

Test-optional policies seem to carry a philosophical appeal for Catholic schools, according to Schaeffer. "These are schools with a long tradition of service to people who have not had every advantage," he said. "They're very serious about their moral obligation in that regard."

Loyola officials studied schools such as Bates College in Maine, which has used test-optional admissions since the 1980s, and found that the policy led to increased applications from students of color, international students and "basically every segment you want in your applicant pool," Hicks said.

The value of test-optional policies at early adapters is disputed, however. University of Pennsylvania professor Howard Wainer studied Bowdoin College in Maine, which went test-optional in 1969, and found that students who didn't submit test scores performed significantly worse in college than those who did.

College recruiters can just as easily increase applications from minority and low-income students by marketing to targeted geographic areas, O'Reilly said.

Most test-optional institutions in Maryland are too new to the policy to have much data on its impact, but they're happy with the early results.

Like Loyola, Salisbury studied its student body and found that excellent high school averages and challenging course schedules were more predictive of college success than the SAT or ACT.

Unlike Loyola, Salisbury requires students to surpass a minimum high school GPA (3.5) to apply without a test score. The university has seen a rise in applications (11.6 percent in fall 2007 and another 10.3 percent in fall 2008) and increased socioeconomic diversity on campus since implementing the policy, Neufeld said.

"We were looking for a stronger community of learners, and diversity is certainly part of it," she said.

Neufeld said that every institution must consider its specific needs but said she would have no reservations in suggesting that other schools consider adopting test-optional admissions.

Goucher is just starting to review data on the first class admitted under its test-optional policy but received a record number of applications for fall 2008 and a near-record number for fall 2009. Director of Admissions Carlton Surbeck said he couldn't attribute those numbers directly to the test-optional policy but said, "We're having a good experience. It certainly doesn't seem to have hurt us in any way."

McDaniel began its test-optional policy in 2001. Hines said it has not transformed the college's applicant pool but said that, anecdotally, she has encountered many impressive students who might not have applied if a test score had been required. Students must rank in the top 10 percent of their high school classes or have GPAs above 3.5 to avoid submitting a test score to McDaniel.

It's hardly surprising that the test-optional movement has thrived at selective liberal arts colleges, where admissions counselors have time to review each application carefully in search of hidden talents. By contrast, standardized tests are handy sorting tools for large state schools that deal with tens of thousands of applications every year.

"It is clearly easier," Hines said, "when you know you're able to give an equal amount of attention to every application you receive."

Test-optional colleges in Md. Loyola College (beginning in fall 2010)

McDaniel College

Goucher College

Salisbury University

Washington College

St. John's College

Baltimore Hebrew University

Sojourner-Douglass College

University of Maryland University College

Baltimore International College

Columbia Union College

Some test-optional colleges around the nation Wake Forest University

New York University (on a limited basis)

Arizona State University

George Mason University

Oklahoma State University

University of Texas

Middlebury College

Source: National Center for Fair and Open Testing

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