What does it mean to be qualified for admittance to college? Should it be the potential to do well (“aptitude”) or demonstrated achievement?
Earlier this month, The College of Idaho went public with its choice to adopt a new test-optional admission policy. As a test-optional school, our incoming students now have the option of answering a series of essay questions rather than submitting standardized test scores. The announcement was one of my first major decisions as president, and I appreciate this opportunity to outline some of our rationale.
Tests are not really accurate. Standardized testing began in the 1920s, when the number of students with good grades seeking admission to college and medical school exceeded the number of places available. Rather than assessing students’ mastery of prior learning, educators were enamored with the promise of scientific analysis of intelligence, or “aptitude.” The Medical Aptitude Test (later called the MCAT) was the first required test for admission, in 1929. While the SAT, also an aptitude test, was piloted in the same period for undergraduate admission, most undergraduate colleges continued to use their own tests, often essays, that assessed prior learning. After World War II, the dramatic surge in applicants to undergraduate and graduate programs challenged many admission directors to look again to the science of psychological testing. By the 1960s, almost every college-bound student took either the SAT or the newly developed ACT.
But were these tests really scientific? And more importantly, did they predict college success? Even the early test developers had doubts — Carl Brigham, who developed the first SAT, later wrote that the standardized testing movement was based on “one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or schooling.” Moreover, a 2007 study summarized many decades of research, noting that test scores are based on a 3-4-hour single sitting, whereas high-school GPA is based on repeated sampling of student performance over several years.
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Test-optional fits our liberal arts model and is not a lowering of academic standards. More than a third of the top liberal arts colleges in the country are test-optional already. The College of Idaho, like many nationally ranked liberal arts schools, has always used a holistic approach to admission. Our enrollment team looks at each student’s entire academic profile, including transcripts, extracurricular activities, writing and leadership abilities, community involvement, recommendations and other achievements. Going test-optional won’t make it any easier or harder to get accepted at C of I, and it has no effect on how we allocate merit aid.
Test-optional is good for Idaho. As a newcomer, I’m very impressed with how much Idaho has to offer. However, our state’s go-on rate is one of the worst in the country. Collectively, we need to find a way to make sure more Idaho students attend college. I’d love for them to enroll at C of I, of course, but we must help our young men and women to continue their education somewhere. Going test-optional allows students to take ownership of their college education.
I’m very happy to be a part of the Idaho education community, and honored to lead The College of Idaho as we celebrate our 125th year of academic excellence. I believe that becoming test-optional makes C of I more accessible than ever for students in Idaho and beyond.
Charlotte Borst, Ph.D., is president of The College of Idaho and is the author of “Choosing the Student Body: Masculinity, Ethnicity, and the Fitness for Medical School, 1920-1940” and a forthcoming book on medical school admissions in the 20th century.