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Updated: April 12, 2021

Central Mass. colleges leading test-blind trend, as they seek to diversify student bodies

Photo | Grant Welker Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester

In 2005, the College of the Holy Cross became one of the first colleges in the country to make a bold change in its admissions process. The Worcester school no longer required applicants to submit what had long been a central component of preparing for college: standardized tests such as the SAT.

A decade and a half later, Holy Cross is joined by just about every one of its Central Massachusetts peers, and higher education admissions have been transformed. 

Colleges generally no longer see the SAT or ACT as necessary for gauging whether a student will be successful at their schools. In fact, many find such tests to only reinforce built-in advantages some students – largely wealthy ones – enjoy before they ever get to college.

“Standardized testing is now the third rail of college admissions,” said Scott Latham, a business professor at UMass Lowell who studies higher education. “There is a huge correlation between household income and test scores.”

In mid-March, Worcester Polytechnic Institute took the trend a step further, saying it would no longer consider standardized test scores at all in its admissions process. WPI is one of the first colleges to go so-called test-blind, a decision it says is in line with its mission and consistent with it’s sometimes unique way of doing business, with an emphasis on project-based learning, a varied academic calendar, and a grading system not including D’s or F’s.

Andrew Palumbo, dean of admissions and financial aid at WPI

“It makes sense that our admissions standards would match with what we’re trying to do,” said Andrew Palumbo, WPI’s dean of admissions and financial aid.

Evolving views

Colleges didn’t always shun standardized tests. They were long a regular part of the college prep process for high school students, and a rite of passage for those looking to make it into a school of their choice. 

But then research began finding problems. Those tests not only didn’t indicate how likely a student was to find success in college, but they also led to inequality concerns at a time when colleges are increasingly determined to diversify their student bodies and give more opportunities to those who might not have had them in the past, such as first-generation college students or those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Once we went forward, it was sort of liberating,” said Ann McDermott, the admissions director at Holy Cross.

Photo | Grant Welker
College of the Holy Cross campus in Worcester

At the time, Holy Cross was one of the first five colleges nationally in modern years to make standardized test scores an optional part of the admissions process, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an Arlington group advocating for fairness in admissions.

McDermott and her team at the time thought Holy Cross students were typically better academically than their test scores would show – Type A people who were overachievers, she said. It was still enough of a leap for McDermott to remember thinking to herself, “What did we just do?”

Lots of colleges have followed.

WPI went test-optional in 2007, at the time the first to do so among its STEM-school peers, a technology-focused group that could be more wedded to data than most.

“They’ve long been used as a lazy sorting system for college admissions officers,” Palumbo said of test scores.

In March, WPI announced it wouldn’t even make such scores optional for applying students. Schools might say supplying a score can only help, and not hurt, a student, but that can’t be so, Palumbo said. A system that benefited anyone unfairly didn’t match with WPI’s goals of a more diverse student body.

WPI’s initial test-optional move was followed by Assumption University in 2009, Nichols College in 2012, and Clark University a year later. By 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education gave approval for UMass and all state universities – including in Fitchburg, Framingham and Worcester – to go test-optional themselves.

The ACT said its tests continue to make student applications stand out in a crowded field of candidates who may have similar grades and that ACT scores often maximize a student’s scholarship award possibilities.

ACT test data, the company said in a statement, helps colleges make more informed decisions in enrollment.

“Colleges continue to tell us that ACT data remains immensely valuable,” it said.

The College Board, a nonprofit running the SAT, emphasized the test helps admissions when used in a wider context. A partnership with the California nonprofit Khan Academy, for example, allows free test preparation to anyone through fee waivers.

“We’re encouraged by colleges reporting more diverse applicants and hope the result is more diverse classes. When used in context, the SAT helps colleges enroll a more diverse group of students,” Priscilla Rodriguez, the College Board’s vice president for college readiness assessments, said. “Students should have the choice to distinguish themselves by submitting scores as part of their application.”

Latham, the UMass Lowell professor, said he expects the SAT and ACT to evolve to stay relevant in admissions.

“Yet I think the horse has left the barn,” Latham said. “We won’t see standardized testing play a large role in college admissions again.”

Other admissions leaders see broad benefits. High school students won’t need to cram so much for a test they don’t find as meaningful. Admissions staff can get what they feel is a better read on students’ potential.

A path toward diversity

Admissions leaders at Central Massachusetts schools say they stopped requiring standardized test scores as a way to diversify their student bodies, and have succeeded. 

Meredith Twombly, Clark vice president for admissions and financial aid

At Clark, whose campus is in Worcester’s Main South neighborhood, the poorest pocket of the city, the test-optional decision was in line with the university’s goal of better serving its immediate community. Few in Main South would have the same type of private tutoring for tests that others might enjoy.

“It’s the exact community these tests are biased against,” said Meredith Twombly, Clark’s vice president for admissions and financial aid.

Other aspects of the admissions process have taken on a greater emphasis instead.

Clark calls upon upperclassmen to help conduct close to 2,000 interviews every year to better gauge the potential of applicants whose qualifications might otherwise not be clear-cut. Fitchburg State conducts interviews for students looking to get into its high-demand nursing major, and moved up interviews earlier in the process because of their increased importance.

“We ask them to submit anything about who they are as a person, not just their academic qualifications,” said Jinawa McNeil, Fitchburg State’s admissions director.

At Assumption, the admissions staff considers intangibles like community service or a role in their family’s life, factors that can come out through essays, interviews or letters of recommendation. The university gives as many as 50 scholarships a year to students who’ve demonstrated community service, and in 2019 created a Division for Student Success to help make sure students, especially those who are first in their family to go to college, have the right support. 

Robert Mirabile, Assumption vice president for enrollment management

Those efforts have worked. Assumption’s freshmen class this year has Asian, Latino, African, and Native American students making up 27% of new students, said Robert Mirabile, the university’s vice president for enrollment management.

Bill Boffi, the vice president for enrollment at Nichols, said the small Dudley school has seen similar benefits, with both more applicants and a more diverse pool to choose from.

“That’s exactly what eliminating a test score does, it makes all the other elements more important,” Boffi said, mentioning interviews with students in particular. “That tells you a whole lot more about a student than two numbers.”

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April 13, 2021
Standardized were developed because standards for grading vary from school system to school system. Abandoning criteria for diversity is another sign of the stupidity that grips America and puts us on the path to socialism. Maybe we should drop the standards so anyone can play in NBA.
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