With a backlash against high-stakes standardized tests growing, more colleges and universities are discarding the SAT as a requirement, as they question its ability to accurately predict college success.
Hundreds of schools have eliminated the test requirement, including some two dozen this year alone. Most are small, private colleges, but this fall, two area public universities — the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Salem State University — joined the trend.
Administrators for both schools say they expect to draw a more demographically diverse pool of applicants, including some who may have been discouraged from applying because of the SAT requirement.
“We were turning away some great students whose standardized test scores did not reflect their ability to succeed,” Kerri Johnston, associate dean of enrollment and director of admissions at UMass Lowell, wrote in a letter to high school counselors last month. The change in admissions policy will be tried on a temporary basis at both schools.
The SAT’s influence in college admissions has long been a topic of heated debate. Supporters say it serves as a reliable benchmark of college readiness when combined with grades and course selection, and allows colleges to compare students from a wide range of academic backgrounds.
Critics say the test favors students from wealthy, well-educated families, giving already privileged students a further advantage, and that many talented students are discouraged from applying to colleges because of their SAT scores.
President Obama recently called on schools to reduce the amount of time students spend taking tests, amid a general concern among educators that standardized tests play too great a role and cause undue anxiety.
Christine Lima, a school counselor at Chelmsford High School, said many students’ performance on the SATs vastly understates their potential. In some recommendation letters, she urges admissions officers to “please look at the whole student.”
“Some students don’t test well,” she said. “That doesn’t take away from their hard work.”
Lima said she expected students to apply to UMass Lowell and Salem State who would not have if they had not eliminated the SAT requirement.
Other schools have reported an immediate effect on the applicant pool. After going test-optional in 2009, Wake Forest University saw the percentage of minority students in its incoming class rise from 18 to 23, and it has since climbed to 30.
Studies have shown that eliminating the SAT requirement does not appear to reduce the quality of incoming students. A independent study released in 2014found that students who do not submit SAT scores, presumably because they think it would hurt their chance of being accepted, wind up doing just as well as their classmates.
The report, whose lead author was William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College, found that the grade point average and graduation rates for the two groups of students were virtually identical. Those who did not submit scores were more likely to be first-generation college students or minority students.
“Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply?” asked the report. “At least based on this study, it is far more the latter.”
That has been the experience at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which became the first technological university to go test-optional in 2007. Applications from women and minorities have surged since, as have enrollments.
Yet only about 5 to 7 percent of students do not submit their scores, said Kristin Tichenor, the school’s senior vice president. Just knowing they have the option carries enormous symbolic value, allaying their fears they will be judged primarily by their SAT performance.
“Test scores have always been tertiary,” she said. “But students don’t believe us when we tell them that.”
Tichenor said students who do not provide their scores are asked to submit a portfolio of their work, but that other applicants have jumped at the opportunity as well. Those materials provide far more insight into students “talents and passions” than SAT scores, Tichenor said.
Still, a majority of colleges continue to give the SAT significant weight. About 58 percent give admission test scores “considerable importance,” while another 30 percent assign them “moderate importance,” according to a 2014 report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The percentage of colleges rating test scores as considerably important has hovered around 60 percent over the past decade, after rising between 1993 and 2003.
Grades in college prep courses were the leading consideration, followed by strength of the curriculum.
Despite the rising number of schools that do not require the SAT, the number of students taking the test continues to climb, to a record 1.7 million in the class of 2015.
“Overwhelming evidence shows that SAT scores and high school GPA in combination are the best predictors of college success,” according to the College Board, which administers the SAT. “Evidence also shows that test-optional policies do not increase socioeconomic and racial diversity on college campuses.”
James Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that while the university takes a broad view of students’ qualifications, standardized test scores provide valuable context.
“Not every high school GPA is the same,” he said.
The SAT is preparing to unveil a redesigned test in the spring to better reflect what students are learning in high school, even as more schools are dropping the test as a requirement. A notable example was George Washington University, which eliminated the requirement over the summer, saying the move would increase access for students from low-income families and who are the first in their families to attend college.
Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, which dropped its SAT requirement in 2013, said standardized tests are “at best, mildly predictive” for how students will fare in their first year of colleges, and only in combination with their grades. Flagel hopes the policy undercuts the perception that SAT scores are paramount, and that more students will apply as a result.
Robert Dais, the director of GEAR UP Massachusetts, a college-readiness program that works with students from low-income families in seven Massachusetts communities, said such students often struggle on the SAT, no matter how smart or hard-working they are.
“Quite honestly, it’s a barrier,” he said. “This will be welcome news for our students.”Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.