Why Are Colleges Really Going Test-Optional?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's find out if an idea that sounded good at the time turned out to be. In July, George Washington University, in the nation's capital, threw its weight behind an increasingly popular idea in higher education. The University went test-optional, meaning applicants no longer have to submit SAT or ACT scores. George Washington University said it hoped the move would broaden access to students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households - sounds great. NPR's Cory Turner reports it may not be true.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: For Stephen Burd, it's a trust issue.
STEPHEN BURD: By going test-optional, they appear to be doing one thing, but doing another.
TURNER: Bird studies ed. policy at New America, a D.C. think tank, and he recently wrote a column suggesting schools may be going test-optional for the wrong reasons.
BURD: Number one - in getting more applications, that allow schools to then reject more students.
TURNER: And that, says Burd, makes them look more selective in the college rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report. If there's a bump, though, it's pretty small. A school's acceptance rate accounts for just 1.5 percent of its overall rank. Burd also points out that in a test-optional system only students who score well on the SAT tend to submit their scores.
BURD: When the school, then, calculates what its average SAT score is, it ends up artificially inflating it.
TURNER: Which, again, helps schools in the rankings, making the student body look smarter and the school look better, though the folks at U.S. News disagree. If a school collects scores from fewer than three-quarters of its students, they say its SAT average is automatically discounted on the assumption that it's too high. Burd makes one more point in his column, and this one's harder to explain away. That bit we mentioned earlier about schools going test-optional to diversify their campuses? Well, he says that may not even work. As evidence, Burd cites this guy.
ANDREW BELASCO: Andrew Belasco - and I was a doctoral student at the University of Georgia at the time of this study.
TURNER: The study he's talking covered 180 liberal arts colleges, roughly 30 of them test-optional. And Belasco looked at their enrollments over nearly two decades. What he found surprised a lot of people, himself included.
BELASCO: No statistically significant evidence suggesting that there was even a slight bump in diversity.
TURNER: That's surprising because African-American and Latino students have, on average, struggled with the SAT. There's also a correlation between family income and test performance - the higher the income, the higher the score. So it stands to reason - ditching the test should open some doors. Now, this is just one study, and test-optional champions say they've seen plenty of evidence that the policy does increase applications from underrepresented students, but Belasco doesn't actually dispute that.
BELASCO: So application is not the same thing as enrollment.
TURNER: He says test-optional could well increase the diversity of a school's applicant pool, but that's not the point. In actual enrollments, Belasco found no such bump, and it's hard to know why. Without test scores, some students may have trouble standing out, and some who are accepted likely can't afford to go, even with help. Tuition at George Washington University is now $50,000. Throw in room, board, books and everything else, and you're close to $70,000 a year.
LORI KOEHLER: I think he raises a really good point.
TURNER: Lori Koehler leads enrollment efforts at GW, which, again, just went test-optional.
KOEHLER: So we can't look at this as the answer. This is one step that we felt would help us toward greater access.
TURNER: Other steps include building relationships with high school guidance counselors and rethinking financial aid policies. Belasco's advice?
BELASCO: Put your money where your mouth is. If you're really serious about getting these types of students to your campus, you need to do more. You need to make college affordable, and you need to find these students where they are.
TURNER: Two big tests for schools that, if they want to diversify, are not optional. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.