As published in The Washington Post
By Nathan O. Hatch
The College Board amended its policy on reporting SAT scores this month in an effort to ease stress on student test takers. While all scores are currently reported to colleges students apply to, starting with the Class of 2010 students who take the entrance examination multiple times will be able to control which of their scores admissions officers see. Even before then, though, students who want to attend Wake Forest University won’t have to worry quite so much about the exam that most universities rely on so heavily.
Last month, Wake Forest dropped the SAT and ACT as an entrance requirement, becoming the only top-30 national university with a test-optional policy. This step away from standardized tests will help us and other institutions of higher education move closer to the goals of greater educational quality and opportunity.
Our decision to reevaluate our admissions policy grew out of a close look at the state of higher education and some long, hard thinking about the kind of university we want Wake Forest to be. For several years, a growing body of research has made clear that America’s top colleges and universities are doing a poor job of helping some young people realize a critical part of the American dream: that anyone, no matter where he or she begins in life, has the chance to rise to the top.
For example, students from the top quarter of the socioeconomic hierarchy are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quarter. In 1970, only 6 percent of students from the lowest-income families earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24. More than 30 years later, the figure was still only 6 percent.
Research has indicated that one of the major reasons equal opportunity is lacking is universities’ reliance on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Analyses show clearly that performance on the SAT is closely correlated with family income. Two scholars recently found that top colleges and universities could increase the enrollment of low-income students simply by giving greater weight to admissions criteria other than standardized tests.
Some argue that this limited opportunity is the price universities have to pay for a quality student body. But the research and our experience don’t bear this out. A study of 78,000 students in California found that SAT scores correlated with family income but not with college grades. In fact, the SAT was the poorest predictor of college performance when compared with high school grades and performance on subject tests. Other studies have found that such factors as high school class ranking and strength of the high school course load are better predictors. A 2007 analysis of national data sets, for example, showed that colleges can attain both academic excellence and social diversity if they base admissions on high school grade-point average and class rank but not if they depend on SAT scores.
For all of these reasons, some of the nation’s top small liberal arts colleges — Bates, Hamilton, Holy Cross, Middlebury and Bowdoin — have moved away from the SAT and achieved greater diversity and quality in their student bodies. By making the SAT optional at Wake Forest University, we hope to encourage the momentum for change among the nation’s most selective institutions.
Above all, however, we want to ensure that Wake Forest is true to its ideals and mission. We are well prepared, because this is a place that prizes its commitment to opportunity. We have always reviewed every application to Wake Forest, read and evaluated the essays, and weighed a range of factors. But we thought that our SAT requirement sent students the opposite message — that in the end what counted was performance on a standardized test.
So, starting with the coming year’s admission cycle, a standardized test score will no longer be mandatory for admission to Wake Forest. Instead, we will be adding more personalized elements, including a recommended personal interview and additional opportunities to demonstrate individuality. Students can send us their SAT scores if they want them to be considered in the evaluation process, but they will not be required.
This step aligns our admission policies with our mission as a university. By opening doors even wider to qualified students from all backgrounds and circumstances, we believe we are sending a powerful message of inclusion and advocating for democracy of access to higher education. We also hope it will advance the emerging national discussion of equal opportunity, quality and the SAT, and perhaps renew higher education’s role in achieving the American dream.