In two words, VCU president Michael Rao justified VCU’s commitment to the growing “test-optional” trend in higher education:
That was how Rao described the Scholastic Aptitude Test when he announced at last Tuesday’s State of the University address that prospective students with at least a 3.3 unweighted high school GPA are no longer required to submit SAT scores with their application.
“We are not denying a transformative education to students who we know would flourish here just because they don’t have a certain SAT score,” Rao said to the crowd of more than 250 students, faculty and staff who attended the annual speech. “So beginning this fall, your ability to succeed at VCU will no longer depend on your ability to pass a test that’s fundamentally flawed.”
According to Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 850 institutions of higher education across the country no longer require the SAT. Furthermore, Schaeffer said VCU is the fifth school in the month of January alone to embrace the test-optional measure.
VCU is also the fifth Virginia public school to adopt this approach behind George Mason University, Christopher Newport University, Radford University and Old Dominion University.
“Every school we know of that’s test-optional has found they get more, and better quality, applicants as well as a more diverse pool of applicants,” Schaeffer said. “Going test-optional increases equity in the admissions quality without undermining academic quality — so really it’s a win-win.”
Schaeffer’s assessment echoes the findings of the inherent racial and socioeconomic biases with the SAT that stem from institutions including Harvard, the Brookings Institute and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Luke Schultheis, vice provost for Strategic Enrollment Management, said this expanding body of research, in conjunction with the SAT’s inability to accurately predict student success in college, are primarily why VCU adopted the policy change.
“Let’s take first-generation students for example — we’ve seen on average a 70 point lower SAT score but the same GPA,” Schultheis said. “We’ve been denying those students admission previously, but now we won’t be.”
Schultheis said the Division of Strategic Enrollment has been “mining data” on consistent indicators of student success for more than a year. He said VCU’s internal research found that high school GPA was the single most predictive characteristic, and that a 3.3 or higher, regardless of SAT score, “was kind of the magic number.”
“So if the GPA is the measure to know if the student is going to be successful when they enter the institution, but we require kids to jump through hoops and it’s not even helpful, we needed to take a deeper look to see if we’re doing harm,” Schultheis said.
This reason for this concern was given life when William Hiss, a former dean of admissions and vice president at Bates College, recently published a report for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Bates and his research colleague found no significant difference in college GPA or graduation rates among students who submitted and did not submit their SAT scores at 33 test-optional institutions. The students who chose not to submit their scores were primarily women, first-generation, minority or low-income students, however.
“This might be a mildly interesting point of research, except that the economic health of our society will significantly depend on how many students develop professional and cultural skills through demanding educations,” the report stated.
Schultheis explicated upon this notion, adding that he believes VCU’s new measure will “fundamentally help change the local and state economy.”
VCU primarily enrolls Virginia residents, about 85 percent according to Schultheis, and Rao stated in last Tuesday’s address that VCU also graduates the most minority students in the state, reinforcing the institution’s place as a “national model.”
The potential harm caused by the SAT has been subject to increasing scrutiny in recent years, and even the president and CEO of the College Board — the non-profit that writes and administers the SAT — has expressed qualms with the implications of the test.
In an interview at the Brookings Institute before assuming his position as president in 2012, David Coleman explained a phenomenon known as “undermatching.” Coleman said this term refers to a pattern of academically high-achieving but notoriously low-income students who choose to not even apply to college.
“It is a massive social injustice in this country that 70 to 80 percent of low income kids who could go to highly selective institutions don’t even apply. There’s nothing right about that,” Coleman said, adding that researchers at Harvard recently unearthed this same effect in their findings. “I think these are facts that can and must change, and (we) at the College Board cannot stand by and watch this occur.”
Coleman stuck by this assessment, and announced last March that the College Board would be collaborating with Kahn Academy to offer free, state-of-the-art SAT prep software aside from implementing major modifications to the test itself.
While education reformists and educators have applauded these efforts, the test-optional trend may have already gained too much momentum for the SAT to completely redeem itself.
When Wake Forest University became the first top-30 national university to announce a test-optional policy in 2008, the news created a noticeable stir on the higher education front.
Would this affect the quality of applicants to the school? Would the university’s average GPA suffer — or rise — as a result? What did this mean for other premier institutions?
The New York Times reported that follow-up studies of Wake Forest found the average incoming GPA actually increased after implementing the new standard. Furthermore, the 2012 freshman class consisted of 20 percent more students who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class than before the test-optional measure took effect in 2009.
Schultheis said thus far, VCU has been bringing in a freshman class of about 3,600 students each year. He said that number is expected to increase by about 300 students in 2015.
Schultheis said the increase in accepted students will not be a direct outcome of the test-optional implementation, however.
“We’re recruiting high-achieving, high-GPA students,” Schultheis said in reference to several new marketing and data analysis techniques his department recently started utilizing.
Rao said during Tuesday’s speech that in the last four years, VCU’s graduation rate has increased by 9 percent in addition to a 20 percent increase in freshmen who are enrolled in a full course load. Last year, Rao emphasized VCU’s average GPA increase over the last decade — from 3.2 in 2004 to 3.6 in 2014.
“I think that’s going to continue,” Schultheis said. “And now we’ll be able to help transform the lives of students and families and the economy because of the GPA indicator of success, not a standardized test score.”