President Nathan O. Hatch sees it as the removal of another barrier-to first-generation college students. “The problem with elite higher education is that it is becoming less economically diverse,” he says. “Given the fact that Wake Forest’s academic reputation has soared over the past thirty years, there is the threat over time of our becoming elitist, which would repudiate our heritage. We must conscientiously preserve and offer opportunity to talented students of all economic and cultural backgrounds. I see [the test-optional provision] as a portal to opportunity — an alternate track for young people who are talented and would otherwise be denied the opportunity for the best education simply because they don’t do as well on standardized tests.”
Director of Admissions Martha B. Allman (’82, MBA ’92) assures that quality won’t be sacrificed. “We’ll still be looking for the very best students,” she says. “Eliminating the test requirement will demonstrate that we value individual academic achievement and initiative, as well as creative talent and character, above standardized testing.”
The Wake Forest faculty features one of America’s leading authorities on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and its place in the admissions practices of the country’s elite universities — Associate Professor of Sociology Joseph A. Soares. Soares, who came to Wake Forest as a senior appointment five years ago from Yale University, where he had spent nine years on the faculty, chose his prior employer as the case subject of his well-regarded book, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007). A probing examination of the assumption that admission to America’s elite institutions of higher education is based primarily on academic merit, it examines the role of the SAT since its inception in 1926 and documents the voluminous studies and statistics that point to its inadequacy as a predictor of college performance.
The most compelling evidence was compiled by the University of California system. According to Soares, the University of California at Berkeley adopted the SAT in 1968 — despite four studies conducted in the fifties and sixties that found that it added nothing to the university’s ability to predict the academic performance of applicants — so that it could both show it could compete with the elite private schools of the East and as a strategy to justify the rejection of otherwise qualified applicants flooding in on the crest of the baby boom. But in a study conducted between 2001 and 2005, it not only confirmed that high-school grades were the best predictor of college performance, it found that the correlation grew stronger over the course of an undergraduate’s career — that high-school grade point average was an even better predictor of grades in the senior year of college than in the freshman year. California’s study prompted the University of Texas — generally regarded, along with UC-Berkeley, as one of the nation’s top ten public universities — to admit every student in the top 10 percent of a Texas high school senior class without regard to the SAT.
Faced with mounting criticism of the SAT’s coachability and what many saw as racial and gender bias in its word analogies and mathematical test sections, the College Board, which sponsors the test, revised and lengthened it in 2005, dropping the word analogies section and incorporating essay writing. But the results, released in June, of two studies that correlated students’ scores on the revised SAT with their grades in their first year in college showed essentially no improvement in the predictive ability of the newer version over the old. One of the studies also reaffirmed the findings of prior studies that the single best way to predict a student’s performance in the freshman year of college is by high school grades and not the SAT. The other study found essentially no change in the tendency of the test to underpredict the college performance of women and overpredict that of men and found the same predictive patterns according to race in the revised version as in the old. As to whether the SAT is coachable, which would favor those who could afford tutoring, the College Board itself has acknowledged that the new writing section can be coached.
“The Ivy League has always known that the SAT is a weak predictor of college grades,” says Soares, who holds his doctoral degree from Harvard. “What it is very good at predicting are income and socioeconomic status. It’s always been true that the students who do the best tend to be from more affluent families, which can afford the study guides, the personal coaching, the workshops, and the other services of the billion-dollar industry geared to prepare one to score well on the test quite apart from their scholastic performance to date.
“The world thinks of the SAT as an intelligence test that accurately predicts college performance,” he adds. “It’s not, and it doesn’t.”
Although some 750 of the roughly 3,000 institutions of higher education in America don’t require a standardized test score for admission, only about 25 could be classified as selective in their admissions practices. Most of those are on the U.S. News list of the top 100 national liberal arts colleges and include such esteemed institutions as Bates, Bennington, Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, Holy Cross, and Smith.
Bates, which pioneered the test-optional movement in 1985, has conducted a sequence of studies showing that its applicant pools and student performance outcomes have remained consistently strong over the past twenty-plus years. Mount Holyoke, which discontinued its aptitude test requirement in 2001, is concluding an extensive study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that confirms its ability to make sound admissions decisions without the use of standardized test results. About 40 percent of the applicants to test-optional Hamilton College choose not to submit SAT scores, and they perform slightly better scholastically on the whole than those who submit theirs. And at Holy Cross, which dropped its SAT requirement in 2008, applications for this year’s class rose 41 percent over the previous year, and grades and overall applicant quality were up as well.
In a recent article published in Inside Higher Ed, Drew University’s president, Robert Weisbuch, said that in his earlier position as director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, he detected no correlation between creative talent and higher scores on standardized exams. In fact, he noted, the opposite was true — that typically, it was the students with higher exam scores who submitted the more “inert” funding proposals, and those with the more modest test scores who proffered the more inspired and intellectually vibrant proposals.
Accessibility for students from all income levels has always been important to Wake Forest, which accounts for its status as one of twenty-seven colleges and universities in the United States that maintain a need-blind admissions policy and agree on how eligibility for aid based on need should be determined. “We take great pride in it, especially since the other need-blind institutions tend to have greater [financial] resources,” notes William T. Wells (’74), Wake Forest’s director of financial aid. “To be need-blind and test-optional places us in a very strong [competitive] position nationally.
“But there will be challenges,” continues Wells, who, ironically, is chair-elect of the financial aid advisory committee of the College Board. “If we attract, as we hope we do, more students from modest backgrounds, we will need more financial aid resources, because if we heap too many loans on them instead of grants, ‘need blind’ will become an empty promise; a disappointing exercise in futility. But if being need-blind becomes a financial burden [for Wake Forest], will we need to step back from it? And if we pull back from it as we head into test-optional status, will that send the wrong signal [to prospective students?]”
Presently, Wake Forest funds 80 percent of its financial aid from operational revenues; clearly, building its scholarship endowment is at or near the top of its list of fiscal priorities. As part of the capital campaign now in the planning phase, institutional icons Edwin G. Wilson (’43) and Arnold Palmer (’51) will co-chair a drive for endowed scholarships. In the interim, the University will be carefully documenting the financial effect of maintaining concurrent need-blind and test-optional policies. Wells does note that Middlebury’s director of financial aid has told him she is unaware of any particular financial burdens its SAT-optional policy has imposed on that need-blind institution.
Everywhere on campus, there is a palpable feeling of pride and confidence in judging applicants for admission more by what they have achieved over time and less by how they have performed on a standardized examination. “When we select our students, we are selecting the face of Wake Forest, for today and tomorrow,” Soares states. “We are courageously joining the other institutions in this country that have recognized the shortcomings of standardized testing, and I’m personally very proud of that.”
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Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., who died on Aug. 18, led Wake Forest to national prominence during his 22 years as president, from 1983 to 2005
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