Nationwide, colleges and universities are changing their admissions policies to make traditional standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT optional. In Illinois, more than a dozen schools have already adopted some version of this approach, including Western Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and several private schools.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing tracks this growing trend. Our education reporter Dusty Rhodes had a wide-ranging conversation with the center’s executive director, Bob Schaeffer.
Rhodes: Online, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing goes by a much shorter name — FairTest.org. It's a nonprofit that's been around since the mid 1980s, and it provides a searchable database for students and families looking for colleges that don't require ACT or SAT tests. Some schools have a footnote by their names to indicate that option is available only to high school graduates who achieved a certain grade point average.
Bob Schaeffer: Right. Typically schools in that subcategory have set a minimum GPA, like 3.0, to be considered test-optional.
Rhodes: Okay, so the rest of the schools don't set a minimum GPA?
Bob Schaeffer: To the best of our knowledge. I would just say that college admissions requirements are ever-changing and often hard to find relevant details. Again, you know, because testing requirements historically were opaque. In the pre-internet era, in many cases, they were impossible to discern unless you got a physical copy of the college catalog. More recently, there's a lot more transparency because there's a lot more information on the web, but you often have to drill down four or five levels into an admissions website to see what the policy really is.
So people give us feedback. And when they find something that is inconsistent, we research it, but what we use as the final authority, in almost all cases, is what their website says. Sometimes we actually have to call an admissions office to find out.
Rhodes: And it can vary by what program you're applying to?
Bob Schaeffer: In some schools, yes, they don't require test scores for most programs, but some. Particularly professions in which there is a licensing test requirement, like nursing, they want to know that they're admitting good test-takers. So they get a high passing rate on the nursing professional exam.
Rhodes: It sounds like trying to nail jellyfish to a wall.
Bob Schaeffer: It's not quite jellyfish, but it's quite squiggly. I mean, some places — University of Chicago, Knox, Lake Forest, DePaul — are quite clear and straightforward. But others — and you know, there are 2,400 ... 2,500 four-year degree granting institutions in the US — some of them are obscure in terms of their policies.
Rhodes: So, what's your theory on why this is becoming more popular?
Bob Schaeffer: I don't think it's a theory. I mean, it's based on both what colleges say when they go test-optional and many conversations with college admissions officers, and they say it's for several reasons. One — their own research shows that the test is, at best, a weak predictor of academic outcomes that matter, like graduation. Secondly, concerns that the test is not a level playing field and creates an unfair barrier to access for historically under-representated populations. And thirdly, the positive experience of their peer institutions. And I think the latter factor has been of increasing importance in the last five years during the test-optional surge, with a couple hundred schools have gone test-optional. The positive results include more applicants, better qualified applicants in terms of academic preparation, grades and rigor of courses, and more diverse applicants of all sorts.
Rhodes: Okay, so that last point kind of got to my other suspicion besides the, you know, it makes good sense. I mean, every higher education institution's marketing themselves to students. Like they, you know, they're fighting for kids, right?
Bob Schaeffer: Well, there's multiple tiers of selectivity and competitiveness and economic stability. But when you had, a year and a half ago, the University of Chicago dropped its admissions requirements. I mean, nobody thinks that the University of Chicago is desperate for applicants. They reject 90 plus percent of them already. So their argument is less likely to be self-serving in any way.
But yes, some schools go test-optional to help improve their odds for survivability in an era in which some colleges are going out of business, and others are facing serious challenges because of the end of the high school baby boom, and the general state of the economy, which produces fewer and fewer applicants to four-year colleges.
Rhodes: Do you think that what the research shows about these standardized tests, are there other standardized tests that you can make similar conclusions about? Or is it just SAT and ACT?
Bob Schaeffer: Well, SAT and ACT are the two primary tests used for undergraduate admissions. FairTest is deeply involved in a movement to eliminate the GRE as a requirement for graduate level program, and we call it the Grexit movement — GRExit — and those tests have even worse flaws, and are less necessary, because applicants to graduate schools already have three years of undergraduate work and grades in college under their belt so that they can demonstrate their capacity to do work.
Rhodes: I scored very low in writing on the GRE.
Bob Schaeffer: I cannot tell you how many female journalists I’ve talked to who say that, and my answer is always the same: Well, obviously your career is a fake and you should resign because the test said you couldn't do what you obviously can do.
FairTest isn't just concerned with colleges. Its mission includes pushing back against the whole notion that standardized test scores of any sort automatically equate with merit. For example, Schaeffer was aware that Illinois recently dropped the so-called Basic Skills Test requirement for teacher licensure, and he applauded that move.
Bob Schaeffer: It's a good thing that Illinois eliminated that test. It was made by National Evaluation System — an arm of Pearson, the international testing conglomerate, which has probably the worst track record of any company in the testing business. They have been sued in multiple states for flaws and their teacher licensing exam. They've been replaced by other contractors and their products appear to be shoddy.
Rhodes: It's worth noting that FairTest is funded in part by teachers unions (as is the NPR Illinois Education Desk). Schaeffer says those contributions have never amounted to more than $75,000 a year. But when it comes to standardized tests, there are more organizations and bigger money on the other side of the issue.
Bob Schaeffer: You're talking about Walton [Family Foundation], which is Walmart; Broad [Foudation], and Gates [Foundation]. They are funders of test-based so-called reform, which has produced negative results in the last 20 years.