On Tuesday National Public Radio’s Eric Westervelt broke the story of an unprecedented, longitudinal study challenging the value of standardized tests in the admissions process. Bill Hiss, the principal researcher and former dean of admissions at Bates College, told NPR that “this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores.”
The study found “trivial differences” in examining the college performance of students who submitted standardized test scores for college admission and those who didn’t. The research suggests a better predictor of college success is the student’s high school GPA. Wake Forest, whose test-optional policy began with the freshman class of 2009, was one of the 33 institutions studied. (This year applications are holding steady compared with last year: approximately 11,000 but with a difference: a 25 percent increase in those applying early decision, a definite uptick.) I asked Dean of Admissions Martha Allman (’82, MBA ’92) to discuss the study’s findings and what they mean for Wake Forest. Here’s our edited, condensed interview.
Maria Henson: For people who have not read the study, describe its main findings.
Martha Allman: The study was done by Bill Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates College, one of the first colleges to become test-optional. He’s done a lot of research and recordkeeping on test-optional. He expanded his research to 33 different test-optional colleges including state schools, private schools, arts schools, historically black schools. It’s a very broad look and longitudinal. It basically shows there is virtually no difference between submitters and non-submitters in their college years. That’s the main finding.
Henson: Was Wake Forest one of the schools studied?
Allman: Yes. We did provide data, and I spent a lot of time on the phone talking with Bill Hiss about this.
Henson: Why did you want Wake Forest to make the change to test-optional?
Allman: In 2008 we began really paying attention to research out there about use of the tests. (Sociology professor) Joseph Soares on our faculty had done a lot of research himself on the biases of the SAT. We felt that this was a way that we could really broaden our applicant pool to attract more socioeconomic and racial diversity and also look at students who perhaps were star high school students — stars academically — but were not applying to Wake Forest because of our average SAT scores.
Henson: Did you do your own admissions tracking after the policy took effect?
Allman: Yes and continue to do so. We found the same thing that the study found: there is virtually no difference (in college performance). When we went into the test-optional decision there was concern from the faculty, from students, from alumni that this would lessen our academic nature, that we would no longer draw really strong students, that we would become less competitive, that the students would not do as well, that we would have higher attrition. And none of that has proved to be the truth at all. As a matter of fact, last year we had more students graduating with honors than possibly we have had in Wake Forest history. We’ve not seen attrition increase, and we don’t see any differentiation between the submitters and the non-submitters. That’s the big news.
Henson: What has been the long-term trend line concerning submitters and non-submitters applying to Wake Forest?
Allman: It’s been pretty consistent. Between 25 and 30 percent of the students not submitting. We do ask students to submit after they enroll. Some do. Some don’t.
Henson: I talked to a junior who said her guidance counselor told her Wake Forest would not let you in if you didn’t submit scores. As she put it, the thought would be there is something wrong with you.
Allman: It’s not true at all. I think even for students who submit we probably pay much less attention to that than we did in the past. We saw this from the first year and continue to see students who have extremely high SAT scores who don’t submit (scores), saying, ‘Philosophically, I love what you’re doing and I want you to judge me on my academic merits, not on my test.’ That’s really exciting to see those students.
Henson: What has been the effect on campus and in the classrooms?
Allman: We have more students who are eligible for Pell Grants, more first-generation college students and more racial minorities. All of those things have increased.
Henson: How might this study change the admissions process throughout the United States?
Allman: I think one of the exciting sentences that I read in the study was (to paraphrase) ‘With the increasing number of really high quality colleges becoming test-optional — private, public and a variety of schools — families may be reaching the point that they decide to forgo the whole testing process.’ That was a very shocking thing to read in print, but actually a very exciting thing and suggests that we may be on the cusp of a real culture change. Historically, SAT scores have been equated with intelligence. Studies and studies are showing that that isn’t true. And here we have wonderful, empirical evidence that students at selective schools perform just as well without a standardized test as they do with the test.
I have long bemoaned the students who have spent so much time in test prep, so much money and so much energy in test strategy. They could be doing other things. They could be more involved in school, more involved in fine arts or other kinds of important extracurricular and talent activities. Now this may open the door to say perhaps we have put too much emphasis on it, and we need to dial it back and concentrate on other academic issues.
Henson: What will be your next “bold move” as dean of admissions?
Allman: Admissions has to be continually nimble. We never know how the landscape is going to change and how we need to adjust. I think we need to continue to be attuned to what’s going on in the world of admissions and the educational landscape. Certainly we’re very interested in the whole area of access, making sure that first-generation college students, students who have not had a lot of the privileges of other students, have access to Wake Forest. The Magnolia Scholars Program — and the growth of that program — is a testament to that. Making our campus more international is one of the things we’re moving toward, with students coming in from China, India and Western Europe. It’s diversity writ large.
Henson: Does that mean that the Wake Forest a lot of us attended and knew is over?
Allman: I think there are common threads from when you and I went to school and (Provost Emeritus) Ed Wilson (’43) went to school to these students entering Wake Forest that hopefully will never change. The whole idea of Pro Humanitate is, I think, stronger than ever with this generation of students. (And the idea) of service, of social justice issues, of international kinds of issues. The whole student-faculty relationship — the closeness — is something that separates us from a lot of our peers. Students are drawn here because of that. Students live here, and faculty live close by, and there’s close community interaction. It’s been treasured since the time Wake Forest was founded and still is. There may be cosmetic changes in the way the campus looks. It has certainly grown. We’ve added new buildings, and the people always change. We reflect more of what the country looks like now, but the fundamental character of Wake Forest is still there, and it’s very, very strong.
Henson: What have I not asked you that you wish I had?
Allman: The emphasis on academic excellence. I think that was the greatest worry — that we were making it easier for people to get in and that was going to affect the classroom and our graduates. That hasn’t been the case at all. We continue to attract a really competitive applicant pool. We have not scared away students. In many ways it’s considered more selective because the process has all these subjective factors: we interview students, we have an application that is more in-depth than most any of our peers and we get good press about that. Guidance counselors tell us that the admissions process is a good reflection of what Wake Forest is — that it is intentional, personal and individualistic, focusing on the whole person, not just the quantifiable.”