The Rigors and Rewards of Going Test-Optional

Whatever you think of standardized tests, going test-optional is not a piece of cake. When a college stops requiring the ACT or SAT scores, it must confront logistical challenges and answer many questions, as I’ve previously written about here and here.

In a new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, Martha Allman describes, in great detail, what happened after Wake Forest University dropped its testing requirements in 2008. At that time, the university added short-answer questions to its application and strongly encouraged all applicants to schedule one-on-one interviews with admissions officers.

Ms. Allman, Wake Forest’s dean of admissions, writes that the move made her staff feel like Little Red Riding Hood, ”excited and scared.” Would applications increase by a lot or a little? Would minority applicants really come in droves? And would the admissions office’s air-conditioning and plumbing systems withstand the surge of prospective students coming for interviews?

Ms. Allman’s account is but one chapter in SAT Wars, which includes contributions from Robert J. Sternberg, provost at Oklahoma State University and a psychologist who’s both an eloquent critic of the SAT and a proponent of alternative measures of abilities; Daniel Golden, whose reporting on college admissions won a Pulitzer Prize; and Richard C. Atkinson, a former president of the University of California, whose concerns about the SAT led the College Board to revamp its signature test in 2005.

SAT Wars was edited by Joseph A. Soares, a sociology professor at Wake Forest and author of The Power of Privilege, an in-depth look at the history of admissions at Yale University. In SAT Wars, Mr. Soares writes that the nation would be a better place without the big, bad tests that have long dominated the admissions world: “Our world is not best served by a test-score social Darwinismin support of a collegiate caste system.”

These are strong words that echo big-picture debates, which are sure to continue for many years. But I’m struck by Ms. Allman’s nuts-and-bolts rendering of how Wake Forest’s new admissions system changed her staff’s day-to-day work: “We could not have anticipated the dramatic increase in workload, the labor-intensiveness of the process, the challenge of attempting to interview the entire applicant pool, the technical challenges of written online interview options, nor the volume of comment from our constituencies.”

Nonetheless, all that sweat paid off, Ms. Allman concludes. Interviews helped her staff differentiate among applicants, the quality and diversity of the applicant pool increased, and students who didn’t submit test scores have done as well at Wake Forest as students who did submit them. “The most important lesson we learned was that, indeed, just as we had expected, test scores really don’t matter that much,” Ms. Allman wrote.

She also wrote this: “We all became better admissions officers.”

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