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Universities’ test-optional policy increases applicants

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POTSDAM — After adopting test-optional admissions policies, two north country universities have seen a surge in applications.

Traditionally before entering college, students take one or both of the SAT and ACT standardized tests.

SUNY Potsdam moved to test-optional admissions in 2009, when it received 4,525 applications. In 2011, the college received 5,097 applications, a surge that Rick Miller, vice president for institutional effectiveness and enrollment management, credits to the new policy.

“The reaction has been very favorable,” he said. “We have seen little change in the incoming class, however, as far as an overall academic analysis.”

In Canton, St. Lawrence University, which removed the requirement for traditional college entrance exams in 2006, saw a similar increase after adopting the policy, said Jeffrey B. Rickey, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.

“Over a period of time we did have an increase,” he said, “though over the past two years, we’ve had a decline in applications.”

In 2005, the school reviewed 2.989 applications. That number increased to 5,419 in 2008, but dropped to 4,274 in 2011.

While St. Lawrence University does not require any of its applicants to report a test score, 60 percent do, Mr. Rickey said, and the school considers them.

Mr. Miller said SUNY Potsdam is still not completely test-optional.

“We still require test scores for some parts of the applicant pool who do not meet a certain grade-point average,” he said.

Both universities have seen increased diversity among their classes since adopting the policies, but Mr. Miller said a number of factors could have caused the increase.

“I can tell you our diversity has increased over the past few years, but I can’t say that going test-optional has had a causative effect,” he said. “We are doing more to encourage students from diverse backgrounds.”

St. Lawrence University, which was an early adopter of a completely test-optional policy, attributes its increasing diversity in part to the change, Mr. Rickey said.

“Certainly a greater number of minority students have applied,” he said. “We are also seeing an increase in applications from what I call ‘creative types,’ people who may get good grades in high school but may not be great test-takers. They bring a different type of diversity to our campus.”

Like St. Lawrence, SUNY Potsdam decided that standardized tests were not the best indicator of a student’s performance in college.

“The SAT and ACT are not strong predictors of success at SUNY Potsdam,” Mr. Miller said. “We don’t feel that standardized tests are appropriate to use as a single measure of a student’s academic performance.”

ACT spokesman Edward R. Colby disputed the claim, saying that testing is a proven indicator of students’ ability to perform in college.

“All of our research that we’ve done suggests that is not true. The ACT is a very good predictor of college performance,” he said. “The ACT scores are a measure that we recommend be used in conjunction with other factors.”

Mr. Miller said SUNY Potsdam, the first SUNY institution to try the test-optional policy, was also concerned that tests could be unfair.

“One of the principles of the change was the notion of unfair testing,” he said. “If there is unfair testing in the standardized test world, and I believe that there is a strong possibility that is the case, then the tests are questionable as a measure of performance.”

However, Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, said test administrators work diligently to provide a standardized environment for test takers.

“The extensive protocols and procedures in place to prevent, detect and remediate testing irregularities at every step of the test administration process are the most comprehensive in K-12 academic testing, and the recent enhancements announced to address the issue of test-taker impersonation will ensure even greater validity and security,” she said.

Mr. Miller also expressed concerns that the standardized tests might prove more difficult for students of nontraditional backgrounds.

“The question of unfair testing and test bias was also an issue,” he said. “The wording of test questions, the environment they are administered in might discourage or disadvantage some applicants.”

Mr. Colby said the ACT carefully screens its questions to make sure they are fair to all students.

“We work very hard to make sure that the questions on the ACT have no bias. All questions go through a rigorous review process that includes outside panels of experts and determining if there is anything in that question that indicates a bias toward or away from a particular type of student,” he said. “We work very hard to make sure the ACT is fair to all students.”

Ms. Steinberg said SAT test writers take similar precautions, and recent studies by the University of Minnesota and Harvard University have shown that test bias has been virtually eliminated.

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