Standardized testing has been a cornerstone of college admissions since its popularization after World War II. Proponents of standardized testing maintain that these tests provide a common metric by which to measure aptitude and counter high school grade inflation. Opponents, however, argue they have historically prevented underprivileged minorities from accessing institutions of higher learning that are means of upwards mobility. Both the costs associated with preparing for these tests and sending these scores are among reasons for this critique.
Some colleges have de-emphasized the importance of standardized tests in admissions consideration, instead opting for “test-optional” policies. These schools consist of liberal arts colleges such as Bowdoin, Colby, Smith, Pitzer, Wesleyan, and Bryn Mawr as well as large research universities such as UChicago, American, Brandeis, and George Washington. While Swarthmore has not implemented such a policy, the admissions office says that they utilize other means of composing diverse and qualified incoming classes. Since the fall of 2017, however, Swarthmore has offered score self-reporting, allowing applicants to submit their standardized test scores directly to the college rather than through the College Board, so that they must only pay test sending fees if they matriculate.
Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 and Director of Admissions J.T. Duck explained that the Admissions Office has put in much thought and calculation into considering how Swarthmore might play into this national movement.
“Every few years, we review our testing policy as part of that research. In these reviews, we examine the correlation between standardized test scores along with secondary school classroom performance and performance at Swarthmore. We also look at the national landscape to make sure our policy is not unintentionally burdensome relative to most of our peer institutions,” Bock and Duck wrote in a joint email to The Phoenix.
Their reviews found that subject tests and essays did not effectively indicate aptitude in applicants.
“In our most recent review, we discovered a weak correlation between subject test scores and performance at Swarthmore, so we discontinued our practice of requiring Subject Tests from our applicants. We also found no statistically significant correlation between either the S.A.T. writing score or the A.C.T. essay score and performance at Swarthmore, so we discontinued use of those portions of the test in our application review process,” they said.
While the review de-emphasized the importance of these assessments, the Admissions Office determined that S.A.T. and A.C.T. scores were still a viable and important metric.
“We did see a statistically significant correlation between S.A.T. or A.C.T. scores, when looked at alongside high school grades and rigor of curriculum, and performance at Swarthmore,” they said.
Though Swarthmore has not gone test-optional, the Admissions Office has implemented several other policies to ensure that admissions remain equitable and attract the most capable applicants.
“In the fall of 2017, we began allowing applicants to self-report their standardized test scores – thus reducing the financial and administrative obstacles related to sending test scores through the testing agencies at the point of application. We were one of the first highly selective colleges to formalize this policy,” wrote Bock and Duck.
Other cost-saving measures the Admissions Office has implemented include waiving the application fee and not requiring a fee for submitting creative or performing arts portfolios.
While the Admissions Office does not currently have plans to put into practice a test-optional policy, they will continue to review admissions policies to achieve the goal of enrolling more diverse and representative classes.
“We respect the choices that some other institutions have made to go test-optional. We will continue to review our policies, to research our institutional data, and to review test scores (and other components of applications) holistically and contextually as we recruit and enroll a diverse community of scholars.”
Students tend to look positively upon the self-reporting policy.
“I saw there was a score sending fee and it was expensive, but I remembered that I read on the Swarthmore website that you can self-report. So took a screenshot of my score, cropped it, sent it, and they just accepted it,” said Gabriela Martinez Hernandez ’22, who self-reported her scores.
By self-reporting an applicant can freely submit their scores to many different schools and then only pay the College Board fee for the one college that they decide on, thus reducing the number of fees that must be paid.
Ayleah Johnson ’22 self-reported her scores to most schools, but chose to send them to Swarthmore via the College Board’s free reporting service because she knew it was her top choice.
“It especially helps people who apply to lots of schools. You can’t even lie if you self report because you do have to send in your scores eventually and you would get rescinded if you would,” said Johnson.
Johnson believes that test-optional admissions would be another step in the right direction towards increased diversity that was begun by the test-optional policy.
“I think test-optional admissions would make Swarthmore more accessible because a lot of high school seniors are put off by statistics about the high average test scores, like the 25th percentile is a 32 ACT,” she said. “But I do think that the people who would end up applying would have had a high test score anyway because it is a very self-selecting school; not too many people know about it. Still, I think it would be interesting to implement a test-optional policy, and might make for a more diverse class.”
The movement towards test-optional admissions has its genesis at Bates College in Maine, which has been test-optional since 1984 but required test scores upon matriculation for research purposes of comparing submitters to non-submitters. At the conclusion of their twenty-year experiment in 2004, Bates released data showing negligible differences in performance between submitters and non-submitters. The movement was bolstered further by a 2008 National Association of College Admissions Counselors that pushed colleges to consider switching to test-optional admissions if they believed that tests are not useful.
As this trend progresses, the Admissions Office continues to survey different methods for assessing applicants and composing a diverse class.
“The Office of Admissions is committed to attracting, admitting, and enrolling the best and brightest students to Swarthmore each year,” wrote Dean Bock and Mr. Duck. “We do that, in part, by designing a selection process that is accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and that aligns with the College’s mission and with our own institutional research on what makes for a successful Swattie.”
Test-optional policies are one proven way to reduce the impact of family wealth of the admissions process. That’s a major reason why more than 1,000 accredited, bachelor-degree granting institutions — including more than half of the nation’s top-ranked liberal arts colleges — will make decisions about all or many applicants without regard to ACT/SAT scores. A full list of these schools is available for free online at: http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional