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April 3, 2017

Colleges drop standardized tests to boost applications, diversity

PHOTO/WORCESTER STATE UNIVERSITY Worcester State University wants to strike a balance between easing admissions requirements to boost enrollment while upholding the integrity of its graduate degrees.

In March, Worcester State University announced it will no longer require undergraduate applicants to submit standardized test scores as a requirement for admission.

While the change at Worcester State applies to undergraduate applicants, who still have the option of submitting SAT or ACT scores if they think it will help their application, a growing number of professionals interested in pursuing advanced degrees also have the option to skip standardized tests, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), when applying for admission into programs.

For applicants and colleges, that's good news, said Bill Purnell, director of Graduate and Continuing Education Recruitment & Enrollment at Anna Maria College in Paxton. A few years ago, Anna Maria stopped requiring graduate program applicants to submit standardized test scores, making them optional. Factors like professional experience and career goals receive more emphasis.

“It can be such a barrier,” Purnell said, of testing.

Purnell, who was a working professional when he went back to school for his master's degree, said preparing for and taking a standardized test while working a day job is no small feat, and he believes it's a stumbling block for many would-be graduate students.

In marketing graduate programs, which include master's degree programs in business administration and industrial organizational psychology, Anna Maria highlights the fact that GRE and other test scores aren't required – though students may submit them if they think their scores will boost their application.

“This is a new pattern that's emerging. You're going to see more and more schools start to do this, Purnell said.

Holistic review

Purnell said the new buzz in higher education is about the validity of test scores, and he cited a 2016 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which underscores the importance of a holistic review of applicants to master's and doctoral programs in fostering diversity in higher education, as well as improved student outcomes.

Julia Kent, a co-author of the report, “Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions,” said the graduate deans and faculty members who were surveyed associated a variety of practices with the term holistic review, a term she said is borrowed from U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to fostering diversity in higher education.

“'Holistic review' does not necessarily mean throwing out standardized test scores,” said Kent, who is assistant vice president of communications, best practices, and advancement at CGS .

But consensus among respondents is appropriate emphasis should be placed on factors like test scores and undergraduate transcripts, Kent said. For example, colleges and universities are getting away from the practice of using test score cutoffs to automatically eliminate applicants who don't have certain grades or scores.

Local schools drop testing

Definitive data on the number of graduate schools requiring, or dropping, standardized testing is hard to come by, but a number of area schools advertise master's degree programs that do not require GRE or other test scores. Clark University, for example, does not require GRE scores for part-time applicants to master's degree programs, or GMAT scores for part-time MBA applicants. Framingham State University has test score waiver provisions for certain graduate programs, while Fitchburg State University no longer requires graduate testing for any programs.

For Ryan Townsend, an MBA student at Anna Maria College, programs that did not require testing were more attractive when he was evaluating his graduate school options. He said he wanted to attend a program full of seasoned professionals – not necessarily those who were able to get high scores on a standardized test.

“I just don't think they're an effective tool for a graduate program,” Townsend said.

Sometimes, testing is required

For applicants, standardized tests are not simply an obstacle to be overcome, said Roberta Kyle, dean of the Division of Graduate and Continuing Education at Worcester State University.

For certain programs, Worcester State waives standardized testing requirements for graduate program applicants, but for programs that are accredited by outside organizations, such as the master of science in speech-language pathology, standardized test scores are vital. Kyle said students will need to pass exams for licensure upon graduating, so test-taking ability is important.

Kyle said exams like the GRE give admissions teams something to refer to in measuring the strength of an applicant, other than a GPA. She said graduate applicants may be out of college for 15 years and have lackluster transcripts but excellent GRE scores.

A way to boost applications

Easing up on admissions requirements is one way that admissions teams may try to boost enrollment, but the need to recruit students must always be balanced against the need to uphold the integrity of the degree, Kyle said, adding the topic of standardized testing warrants ongoing review.

She's particularly concerned about testing data indicating cultural differences impact test scores, as some populations have better access to test prep courses and materials than others.

“It's good that people are always pushing the question,” Kyle said.

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