Why some colleges don’t rely on SAT or ACT scores

The recent controversy surrounding a Florida high school student fighting a claim she cheated on the SAT after her score rose by 300 points brings to mind an ongoing question: Are such exams the best indicator of college aptitude?

Some colleges don’t necessarily think so.

Many of the nation’s top liberal arts and research colleges do not require SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications. Of at least 7,000 U.S. colleges and universities, an estimated 1,000 do not require test results, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Agnes Scott College is among the Georgia schools that do not require SAT or ACT scores. It allows applicants to use instead an evaluative interview with a counselor or an analytical or critical writing sample.

So why do some schools say they don’t need to see those scores?

Three University of Georgia researchers — Andrew S. Belasco, James C. Hearn and Kelly O. Rosinger — explored the topic in a paper published in 2014. They said some schools relied too heavily on the exams to determine how students will do in college.

A few schools spurn tests to keep low student scores from hurting their ranking in those closely-watched best-colleges lists. Some colleges and universities, noting long-standing complaints the exams are culturally biased, say not using them encourages more students from diverse backgrounds to apply. Some of those schools have seen an increase in applications.

The UGA team looked at 180 liberal arts colleges between 1992 and 2010 to determine if there were significant differences in admissions by test-optional schools. They found test-optional colleges actually enrolled a lower proportion of lower-income students and underrepresented minorities, on average. Test-optional colleges also saw far more applications.

Ironically, the researchers found “liberal arts colleges that implement test-optional policies experience a subsequent rise in their reported SAT scores, by approximately 26 points, on average.” At Agnes Scott, which became test-optional in 2009, more than 70 percent of applicants still submit ACT or SAT scores.

For many students, the tests aren’t always the best indicator of college success, one official said.

The college declined comment on whether the test-optional policy has led to more applicants from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.

It gives students “flexibility to best showcase their academic talents by choosing between either submitting SAT/ACT scores, scheduling an evaluative interview with an admission counselor or submitting a graded writing sample with teacher comments,” said Alexa Wood Gaeta, the college’s vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid.

In the Florida case, the student, Kamilah Campbell, said she studied hard for the SAT. She hoped a better score would help her enroll at Florida State University.

“It makes a big difference whether she’s going to get into the college of her dreams and whether she can afford it,” said her attorney, Benjamin Crump.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, is reviewing the case.

We’ll see what happens for Campbell, just like what happens with the test-optional movement.