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Whitworth making SAT, ACT optional for applicants

Starting next year, Whitworth College will stop requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, joining a growing number of colleges that are downgrading the importance of the standardized tests in admissions decisions.

Whitworth, which is set to formally announce the decision today, is making the move because of a range of concerns that test critics have been raising for years – that the tests are a narrow way of judging college potential; they favor wealthier students whose families can pay for test-prep courses and materials; and the tests are misleading predictors of college success for women and minorities.

“This isn’t the most obvious move to make at a time when the size and quality of Whitworth’s applicant pool have never been higher, but it’s the right thing to do for both moral and practical reasons,” Whitworth President Bill Robinson said in a statement.

Whitworth officials emphasized that the college’s “holistic” admissions process, which considers a wide range of factors, isn’t getting less selective. If anything, gaining admission to the school is getting harder, with sharp increases in applications and a steady improvement in the academic records of incoming students. School officials also said that, while applicants can choose not to use their test scores starting with applications for fall 2008, the scores would still be used in a variety of ways after acceptance, such as qualifying for scholarships.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Look, if you’re a good student and the only thing that doesn’t seem consistent with your record is your SAT or ACT score, we don’t want to discourage you from applying,’ ” said Fred Pfursich, Whitworth’s dean of enrollment.

Jeff Grassley is just the kind of student Pfursich has in mind. Grassley came to Whitworth four years ago with good grades and a strong academic record, graduating in the top 10 percent of his Texas high school class.

But his efforts to get better-than-average scores on the SAT left him stymied. He took the test three times, scoring 1,100, then 1,140 and finally 1,000 – out of a possible 1,600.

“I was never able to do very well,” Grassley said. “I took an SAT prep class, but I just was never able to master standardized testing.”

But Grassley has turned out to be an excellent college student, carrying a 3.975 GPA for four years as a history major.

More than 700 colleges across the country no longer require the SAT or ACT for admissions, and a lot of those are small, selective liberal arts colleges like Whitworth. More than a quarter of the top 100 “Best Liberal Arts Colleges” in the U.S. News and World Report rankings no longer require the tests.

The first college to drop the requirement, Bates College in Maine, did so in 1984. It conducted a 20-year study, which showed that students who don’t submit their scores show virtually no difference in graduation rates and college grades than those who do.

“It’s isn’t uncommon at all to see a student who does very well in high school in terms of grades but did average or so-so on test scores,” Pfursich said. “The GPA in high school is a better predictor of college success than the SAT score.”

Critics of the tests say the idea of a single, four-hour test that measures college readiness is flawed.

“It would be impossible to design a test that in half a Saturday can accurately assess and predict college success,” said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, an organization that opposes the use of the standardized tests in college admissions.

Schaeffer said a lot of research shows test scores are heavily weighted toward the wealthy, who can afford a wide range of expensive test-prep tools, and toward white men in particular. He said that the SAT and ACT tend to overpredict success for boys and underpredict college success for women and minorities.

“It appears the nature of the test itself – a fast-paced, multiple-choice game, which puts a premium on multiple-choice guessing – puts a premium on the way boys have been taught to behave,” he said.

The College Board, which designs and administers the SAT, insists the test is a valid national yardstick to compare students who come from a wide variety of schools, curriculums and levels of academic rigor.

Caren Scoropanos, spokeswoman for the College Board, said that test scores may reflect social inequities between white and minority students, for example, but that the test doesn’t cause those inequities.

“If I were a college president, I would want a national standard by which to determine where my students fell in comparison to others,” she said. “I think it’s very important to have a national measuring stick. … An A in one class may not even be the same as an A in the classroom across the hallway.”

Scoropanos said it’s overly broad to say how well the test predicts college success because it depends heavily on which school a student attends and that student’s individual circumstances. She noted that most schools that have made the test scores optional are small, liberal-arts colleges that have enough time to make close, careful readings of every application.

“We don’t see it as a trend for colleges and universities,” she said.

Schaeffer said that the number of colleges going to “test-optional” admissions has grown over the past two years because college officials have been unimpressed with revisions to the test.

Beginning with the freshman class of 2008, Whitworth will make inclusion of the test scores in applications optional – students who choose not to submit them will be given an admissions interview instead. The school already considers several factors in deciding admissions, including high school grades, rigor of coursework, recommendations, extracurricular activities and other elements.

Pfursich estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of applicants will choose not to submit test scores.

Whitworth’s decision reflects neither a need for more applicants nor a problem with test scores at the college, officials said. Since 2000, applications to the school have quadrupled to more than 5,000 for roughly 500 freshman spots. And the school’s average SAT scores are well above average and have been steadily rising for several years.

“Ultimately, we believe this change will make us more selective but with more reliable selection criteria,” Robinson said.

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