Should colleges do away with SATs?

Story highlights

  • George Washington University does not require standardized test scores from applicants
  • Stephen Burd, Joanne Zalatoris: A test-optional policy can give colleges a boost in the college rankings game
  • On the other hand, the policy can potentially provide more educational opportunities for lower-income students

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst at New America's Education Policy Program. Joanne Zalatoris is a research intern at the program. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)This week, George Washington University announced it is adopting a "test-optional" admissions policy, becoming one of the largest private universities to allow prospective students to opt out of sending ACT or SAT scores.

GW joins other top-rated national universities such as Wake Forest and Brandeis, and national liberal arts colleges such as Bowdoin, Bates and Smith that do not require standardized test scores from applicants.
    Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management at GW, said in the university's news release that going test-optional "will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities."
    Stephen Burd
    Joanne Zalatoris
    Adopting a test-optional admissions policy can be a positive move for colleges that wish to expand educational opportunity to more diverse populations.
    Research has shown that standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT often put low-income and minority students at a disadvantage because the questions may unintentionally contain cultural biases.
    In addition, low-income students, unlike their wealthier peers, don't have the money to spend on expensive test prep classes that teach tricks students can use to increase their scores. Therefore, low-income and minority students may have a better chance of being admitted at test-optional schools.
    But don't be fooled. Many colleges and universities that go test-optional are not doing so for entirely altruistic reasons. Adopting a test-optional policy can give institutions a boost in the all-important college rankings game.
    For example, freeing prospective students from having to provide SAT and ACT scores can boost the number of students who apply to the institution. Students who may have thought their test scores precluded them from even being considered can now apply without having to worry about including them in their applications. And for colleges, more applicants means more students that they can reject, which lowers their acceptance rate and raises the institution's perceived selectivity.
    Consider GW's 45% acceptance rate this year, which is the highest in a decade. The university may be seeking to increase selectivity without dramatically decreasing the number of students it admits.
    Test-optional policies can also artificially raise the average academic profile of a college's admitted students. Under such a policy, it is likely that only students with good scores will send them to the school to supplement their applications. If a school compiles their averages from only the students who sent scores with their applications, the school will inflate the average test scores of their incoming students.
    Both of these institutional indicators -- acceptance rates and average ACT/SAT scores -- factor into the omnipresent U.S. News & World Report college rankings.
    An increase in either or both of those indicators may not change a university's ranking by more than a couple places. But for a school like GW, which has hovered around the top 50 line and struggled to break through for the past decade, an extra bump of even one or two spots could raise the school's overall national profile.
    All of this is not to say that GW or any of the other universities and colleges that have pivoted to test-optional policies are purely focused on raising their own profiles. The potential positive outcomes of such admissions policies for disadvantaged students may very well outweigh the strategic benefits for the universities, but only if combined with a concerted effort to relieve the financial burden of those same students.
    On that measure, GW has a long way to go, as it doesn't currently come close to meeting the full financial need of the low-income students it admits.
    Instead, it leaves these students with substantial funding gaps -- forcing them to take on hefty debt loads. In 2013-14, GW students from families making $30,000 or less faced a daunting average net price -- the amount of money that students and their families have to pay after all grant and scholarship aid is deducted from the listed price -- of $19,494. That means low-income families have to pony up about 70% of their annual income for their children to attend GW.
    Attracting more minority and low-income students to apply is admirable but ultimately inadequate if those students can't afford to actually enroll.
    As for SATs or ACTs, these tests won't go away anytime soon since the vast majority of schools require them, with many using scores to award merit aid.