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Scoring college entrance tests: How important are the SAT and ACT for gaining admission?

A photo illustration of high school students preparing for college entrance exams. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
A photo illustration of high school students preparing for college entrance exams. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)

YAKIMA – On various weekends during the upcoming school year, high school juniors across the Yakima Valley will cram into classrooms to take college entrance exams.

Taking those exams can be harrowing. Some students study endlessly for the SAT and ACT, thinking their chances of getting into college – and thus securing a financially stable future – ultimately hinge on their scores.

But state and local educators say students may be giving undue weight to those scores, especially since their importance varies depending on where a student wants to attend college. And at universities where they do matter, educators say the bottom line is this: If other elements in a student’s application package indicate they’ll be successful in college, a lower standardized test score won’t torpedo their chances of being accepted.

“We admit a very broad range of students academically,” especially with regard to their test scores, said Philip Ballinger, head of admissions at the University of Washington.

Used by most universities to assess a student’s readiness for college, the SAT and ACT – and their worth on college applications – became subjects of national discussion last month when the University of Chicago made the once-mandatory tests optional for undergraduate applicants. A private university, the University of Chicago is the first top-ranked college in the nation to do so.

State officials say none of Washington’s public four-year institutions are considering the change, but at some of the state’s smaller colleges – such as Heritage University – those exam scores are already optional.

Echoing social justice advocates who have long complained that the SAT and ACT keep minorities out of college, David Wise – the vice president of marketing and communications at Heritage – said the decision to make the scores optional had to do with access.

“The barriers that have been put up to education in general, across the spectrum, has resulted in our desire to want to make sure we can help students overcome any of those barriers,” he said.

Wise said it’s only natural that Heritage – a college created to serve those whose economic status and rural isolationism have made access to education difficult – would not require scores on applications.

At Central Washington University, exam scores are mandatory on undergraduate applications. But admissions officials say those scores are only one piece of a student’s application package, and thus placing inordinate value on them isn’t useful.

“An SAT score is just one of many things that we look at Central Washington University, we actually have a more holistic approach,” said Sharon O’Hare, the vice president of enrollment management at Central. “We are looking at SAT scores … a student’s GPA, and we’re looking at their community service or their co-curricular activities.”

“The scores are a way for us to at least get a first glimpse into a student’s college readiness; but we also put as much, if not more, importance on GPA, because that’s more of an indication of a student’s persistence – how well they can proceed over time, what level of grit they have,” she said.

This is good news for students such as Jane Eichwald. An incoming senior at West Valley High School, Eichwald scored a 1270 on the SAT – lower than she would have liked. That’s a problem, she said, because that score may be a blight on an application package she’s otherwise proud of – especially her 3.9 GPA.

“I feel like (the score is) a small part of you as a student; it’s a measure of your test-taking ability and not your comprehension skills in the real world,” she said.

For students applying to the University of Washington, Ballinger said data shows that, when examined independently, test scores are a better indicator of that student’s likelihood to succeed at the university than their GPA. But when you combine the two, the test scores and the GPA, that combination is a better indicator than the test scores or GPA alone, he said.

“And then when you add that to particular course patterns, it’s even more predictive still,” he said.

Universities taking holistic approaches to assessing an applicant’s readiness for college should add some relief for students preparing to apply, since many feel standardized test scores don’t accurately reflect their academic abilities.

Nataly Torres, who took the SAT in June and will be a senior at Davis this year, agreed with Eichwald.

“A standardized test isn’t going to reflect you as a student in the same way that other things do,” she said. “Being a student is more than grades, it’s your extracurriculars and what you do every day outside of class … that makes you eligible for colleges or whatever path you want to take.”

And while Washington’s biggest universities aren’t yet considering making entrance exam scores optional on applications, Ballinger said that would likely change if a school ever determined they weren’t necessary.

“Now let’s pretend that the data was different, and let’s pretend that we saw that (test scores) really didn’t add much … then arguably, I think we would have to have a serious conversation about not using them.”


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