Why Test optional Admissions?

A new film, “The Test and The Art of Thinking” by Michael Arlen Davis was recently released. This film documents experiences relating to the growing “test optional” college admissions trend which now includes nearly 1,000 colleges and universities. Is this just marketing savvy on the part of these schools or are there genuine, practical concerns regarding the efficacy of these tools if they are over emphasized in the admissions process?

How do we identify the candidates who are most likely to benefit from a given University’s program?

See an introduction to this problem on the WPI website at https://www.wpi.edu/news/spreading-word-test-optional-holistic-admissions. As the first traditional STEM school to adopt a “test optional” stance, they have some years of actual experience building on a test optional process. They don’t just drop the test, they ask students to put their best foot forward through their own presentations/projects. Bates college has also been an early participant in the process.

Think of all the time and money one can save by not over emphasizing test preparation and by putting greater emphasis on your actual interests and your GPA!

See a film teaser at the following address. It includes a listing nationally scheduled screenings across the country @ https://www.thetestdoc.org/

Went in to buy tickets and learned that my leader did not have audio. The following leader is from The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire 06/15/18 - 07:00 PM through 06/21/18 - 07:00 PM

Please try this leader for the film @ http://www.themusichall.org/calendar/event/the_test_the_art_of_thinking.

You can view the Bates study after 20 years of TO, which showed no significant difference in grad rates or performance between those admitted with scores and without.

Ime, test success is about conformity: who can play that game well. Top colleges are a lot about your ability to conform to their expectations. Even TO colleges are still screening for this match, just without scores.

Bowdoin has been test optional since 1969. This is not a “new” thing! Students may submit scores, and many do because they are good. But the admissions staff is able to sort through other data to make decisions without scores which only test a certain type of intelligence. Note that without scores, a student needs to demonstrate excellence in a different way.

'Bowdoin has been test optional since 1969." (garenstategal)
“You can view the Bates study after 20 years of TO, which showed no significant difference in grad rates or performance between those admitted with scores and without.” (lookingforward)

Exactly, it is not new! However, many of the “chance me” questions focus on the SAT scores.

Why do we continue to see students anguish over their standardized test scores and continue to emphasize these scores while GPA’s are treated as second class data? How many times do we see students prepping to raise their SAT scores from 700 to 800 on the belief that their expenses, time and anguish are all necessary to gain admission to a challenging university. Are we sending the hounds down the wrong trail? Are we focusing in the wrong direction?

Is preparation for college admission really about spending our energies learning the art of test taking or should we be focused on selecting appropriate courses, experiencing the art of discovery and creating real problem solutions?

@retiredfarmer Where are you seeing GPA’s being treated as second class data?

I’ve long thought the student/parent focus on scores ties back to hierarchical thinking: people think there is good, better, best and that “best” somehow guarantees more success or success of certain types (getting into a “best” ranked college.) Lol. Holistic and qualitative throw people for a loop. Like, if I can’t see it in a number or position, it’s got to be whacked, deceptive, deceitful. And they cycle back to the scores and gpa.

They can’t seem to comprehend the “more” than can come through in other ways- or not. Ironic.

And to be fair, at some schools, it may not be that hard to get an A while at others, a B+ may be an achievement. While standardized tests have their many flaws, they do allow some apples to apples comparisons between students.

For some courses of study, what is measured may not matter, for others, it may. If I am applying to an electrical engineering program, it is probably imporrtant that I be able to demonstrate good, speedy mathematical proficiency. Tests, whether AP, AIME, SAT2, SAT, ACT might be more important than As in math. If I am applying to study poli sci, it may matter more that I can think deeply rather than quickly.

I think that the AOs are pretty good at figuring out what they need to assess whether a student has what it takes to succeed in their program. And if they don’t feel like they have it, the student is rejected. Test optional is a great option for some students, but when you don’t provide tests, the burden is on you to make sure what you have shown you are capable. And let’s not forget that at tons of schools, kids with top scores (and GPA) are routinely rejected, so even there, the standardized tests are not the be all end all. I agree that people, especially parents, feel compelled to rank applicants.

I also fully agree that obsessing over test scores is a waste of time and energy. There was a time when test prep meant sharpening your #2 pencils… Outside of athletes and major donor legacies, who may need to clear some bar so that admissions can “sign off” on them, I seriously doubt that the focus on scores, especially the marginal improvements at the upper end, moves the needle a lot for most applicants. But boy, can it create some unbearable cocktail party conversation. …

" If I am applying to study poli sci, it may matter more that I can think deeply rather than quickly."

Good point, but math is really not about speed unless you are an accounting major looking for a cost effective office without computers. Higher level math requires imagination which does not always turn on speed as much as insight. Think of Einstein’s thought experiments. The standardized tests led us to believe it is about speed when truly good work requires perspective, even in math. If you can’t get down the basic concepts of a set or a feel for data the speed of you calculations are irrelevant. Some slower thinkers are very good at thinking when given the time.and not standing in the Carnival Barker’s Ring. I have been in situations where the data does not feel correct, but I don’t know why. Because of the uncomfortable hunch, one ponders awhile and invents a way to check out the problem. You might sleep on it overnight. This can be a very important point in the design work that standardized tests do not lend themselves well too. These are the STEM students we do not want to eliminate by way of an SAT. This can happen to the Poly Sci major when she gets wrapped up in some modeling data.

Admissions applications almost always include Secondary School profiles. These profiles include data giving the percent of graduates going on to four and two year college programs. This sets the stage for weighing the caliber of the secondary school. In the case of STEM programs, math/science teacher recommendations are viewed as very important. Some schools do keep track of success at individual secondary schools and these records do influence the review of a student’s application. When gaps cannot be filled, tests scores may be used to fill in or to paper over a decision, but that does not mean it was logical, particularly when applied to an individual case.

If individual test scores were as good at predicting college success as many have been led to believe, we could save $'s for FA and pass the job along to a computer. I’m not even sure some Universities are not already doing this.

This is why cocktail parties are not always fun!.

Without retrieving specific cases, I have read many cases on this website where students with superior GPAs (e.g., >3.9 unweighted) have anguished over an SAT score in the low 700’rds. Are we doing them a service by encouraging them to spend time and more $ prepping for another SAT in hopes of improving to an 800. IF this is what college admissions has reduced itself to, we have misunderstand as an applicant and/or as an admissions officer the proper relevance of the test. Self-esteem is questioned for the wrong reasons. It would make more sense to throw a group of highly qualified students into a hat and draw one out. Would the process be as acceptable to the applicant? I think it would be a more accurate expression of the truth.

Some studies show scores can predict soph college gpa. But adcoms aren’t fretting over soph gpa like metricians do. And when there are gaps (if I’m understanding your intention,) test scores may not be enough. They’re absolutes, but so much more matters in the final decisions. Test Optional does require a deeper look at how the other aspects of an app fit together. For poli sci, eg, it may matter what the applicant has done, other than hs clubs, how he/she views opportunities and pursues them, and the understanding of what poli sci does, not just elections and titles.

And even when you do provide tests, for holistic, you still need to show you’re capable in the various ways the college wants.

For years there have been studies which indicated some significant relationship between SAT scores (particularly the old ACH test) and first through second year GPA in college. It is more interesting to me that their predictive significance diminishes over time. It has been observed that the relationship all but disappears by the third year. Secondary school GPA has long been a better predictor of the variance in college GPA than standardized test scores.

Another study we rarely seem to hear about is the relationship between post college success (how would we measure that?) and the college graduates GPAs. Is there even a relationship here? I am aware of some preliminary, unpublished research which raised questions as to this assumed relationship. It would be fun to study but may not be of interest to many faculty who have been testing and teaching for years! This old preliminary study compared patents awarded and professional awards won to RIC upon college graduation for graduating scientists and engineers over a 30 year period… No significant relationship was found. Their common attribute was a BS degree from the same college.

It appears we are complicated creatures still capable of evolution and growth. If this is an illusion, it is a refreshing one!

And there are reports showing that what really matters to college gpa is the high school calculus grade. Lol, any study/any time. That one came from some group of hs math teachers. (They admitted that the sort of hs kid who takes calc is likely already driven to perform well in college. This was a study via CB, I can no longer find the link.)

But in holistic, especially for a top college, there are so many indicators of probable success in that college’s environment, centering on personal attributes (as well as academic record.) College GPA predictions aren’t an “it.” You want the signs of persistence, willingness to be challeged, resilience, etc.

Again, watch for the hierarchical thinking, that need to assess based on who has a higher or better whatever. IRL, what takes us far isn’t some GPA, but the skills and attributes behind that. Or even, despite that.

So we can’t just quantify this with a test and put it in a jar?

How about, fFirst you have to find the jar, then it's only open a few days. Ha. You snooze, you lose. No punchbacks. And no submitting to #2, or #22, until the ones before it are in.


@retiredfarmer I don’t think anyone here believes GPA’s are less important than test scores; they are clearly more important overall to admission departments. However, it’s much easier for people to evaluate test scores on chance me posts because they are standardized and the data on average and ranged test scores is easily available for every college. GPA’s on the other hand are hard to evaluate here because we only have a fraction of the data available to the college admissions department. At the very least they will have a school profile and know what a GPA means at that school and whether the GPA was earned in the msot rigorous classes available at that school, etc. And many colleges will have even far more data than that – they will know how the applicant compares to their current peers and past peers. They will know how well past peers from the same school did in their college once admitted, etc. Whereas Weighted GPA data here is totally useless. Unweighted is directionally useful, but again hard to know without the other details available in the school profile.

@retiredfarmer , I agree with you about math and speed. If you look at some of the work that Jo Boaler (I think that’s her name – a professor at Stanford School of Education who has done a ton of work on math education) you’ll find a kindred soul.

But with that said, I think that part of this also hinges on how the material is taught (which is part of the reason that I chose EE for my example.) If content is being delivered in a way that requires quick processing of math concepts, someone who has the skills that math ability that the SAT tests may not get left behind. This doesn’t mean that the kids who aren’t accepted into this program because of their stats might not be good EEs, but they are going to struggle with this program. I think of this sort of like language proficiency – I could probably do well in a psych program that was taught in English. If it were taught in German, well…, the outcome might be different.

Note that while there are kids who are good at something and that tests don’t show that, there are also kids who may be the opposite. Years (decades!) ago when I was applying to grad school, I was told after the fact by the AD that one of the things that swung the decision in my favor was a really strong math score on the standardized test. The program was relatively quantitative, and I had NO math or science classes as an undergrad (having placed out from AP exams. It really comes back to being able to convey to a school that you have what it takes to handle the program the way they have structured it.

I love that there are schools like Bard that give kids a number of avenues to apply, including writing papers over the summer and attending a weekend long seminar.

Many years ago I was familiar with a service provided by the CB where the university supplied the CB with the College GPA’s each year and ran simple linear analysis of variance tests with math and verbal SAT scores as well as achievement scores (ACH) in math, physics and chemistry. This was a STEM university where most of the majors were studying some kind of engineering and the rest math, physics or chemistry. All possible variable data sets were run. In the end, the only tested relationships which showed significant relationships to the college GPA were HS GPA, Math SAT and Math ACH. The winning model was:

College GPA= f(HS GPA,  Math ACH) 

Only about 45% of the variance in first year students’ grades could be explained by the model with 30% explained by the HSGPA and only 15% explained by the math ACH. (the MSAT was only 10%, but was "co-linear’ with MACH). By the end of the second year, HSGPA dropped to about 20% and MACH to about 10% for a total of 30% in year two. By the third year, there was no significant relationship.

Importantly, the HSGPA carries the most weight, but what else is happening here? Are “smarter” students loosing speed or are “slower” students tuning in? Whats up?

I like to believe people are not defined by the SAT or even the HSGPA. Perhaps some have “learned how to learn.”

Not all schools fit all people. If one wants to learn how to learn there needs to be an individual match. SATs, ACTS, HSGPAs, and even the costs of college can obfuscate the central issue.

Everyone needs to find their financial, academic and social fit, but I do not believe that all colleges are the same and that all people are the same and that all we need to look at is the major, the price tag and the admissions profile. “Don’t waste your money” on the wrong school regardless of the price tag. Colleges cannot pay you back if you do not graduate with a purpose and a focus because you learned how to learn.

If that happens, your life will be richer!

(Sorry, got carried away!)

@gardenstategal Thank you for Jo Boaler reference. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3icoSeGqQtY

Practicing for a standardized testing process to “get the right answer” reinforces the myth that some kids are now anointed as smart and the rest of us just can’t do the subject, even with solid GPAs. Jo Boaler points out that there is room to grow within today’s educational model. Our self-image plays a role.

We need to follow the GPA/SAT evidence and focus more on construction of the actual educational programs. Some old misconceptions can hold students back. The damage caused by the “I can’t do math” beliefs of many students has a lot in common with the damaged caused by a misapplication of “standardized” testing.

Holistic admissions holds out opportunity for a large talent pool. A number from this talent pool may even think “outside the box.”

@retiredfarmer , ^^She has an interesting (and impressive! ) personal history and has really done a lot of terrific work with teachers to teach them how to encourage kids to think mathematically. All very cool.

As for the SAT/ACT thing, I think that kids who perform below a certain level probably will struggle with the material in college, so the attempt to correlate success with scores is a bit of a bogus test simply because the vast majority of the kids being studied have already flown over the critical hurdle. As you note, the real differentiator at that point is something else. (I have heard the same of tests administered for test-in high schools – except for showing who is truly not going to be able to do the work, they are useless predictors of success. But they can be helpful in eliminating those destined to fail.) If those who were rejected had the benefit of an approach like Boaler’s much earlier on, they too might have been prepared. In many ways, the aptitude at the end of high school is determined by how math is taught in elementary school. Most kids who are “naturals” will survive it, but the kids who actually need guidance to work it out often don’t get it and are left behind. We are willing to invest in literacy but not numeracy. Nobody writes off kids because “maybe she’s just not good at reading”!

Many years ago when traditional STEM schools were going “COED” there was a real drought of girls interested in ma