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The Shifting Role of the SAT in NH

Published Tuesday Sep 17, 2019

Author Kathie Ragsdale

New Hampshire’s colleges and universities have been eliminating the SAT as an admissions requirement and turning instead to what some are calling “holistic” approaches to gauging students’ readiness for college.

Of the 21 public and private institutions of higher learning that are members of the NH College and University Council, only Dartmouth College still requires standardized test scores for admission. But even Dartmouth emphasizes on its website that testing “isn’t the ultimate factor” for acceptance.

Except for applications to nursing schools and some scholarships, SAT results are no longer mandatory at the other colleges.

That includes the state’s Community College System, which serves 26,000 students annually at its seven colleges and five academic centers, according to Shannon Reid, director of communications for the Community College System of NH. “We will accept SAT scores if students wish to provide them and use them along with other measures, such as transcripts, for determinations of placement,” she says.

The University of NH became the latest to drop the SAT requirement, with its recent announcement that it is launching a three-year “test-optional” pilot program for students enrolling in fall 2020. Other schools dropped the prerequisite years ago.

“What our data has shown is that, far and away, the single most important thing in the admissions process is grades,” says Rob McGann, director of admissions at UNH. “It is the most predictive part of the admissions process. Standardized testing adds a little bit of value to our ability to make accurate and reliable admissions decisions, but the question is, at what cost?”

Criticism of the SAT
Critics have charged for years that the SAT unfairly disadvantages minority students and those from low-income households.

And the recent scandal involving high-profile celebrities and wealthy families buying their children’s way into prestigious colleges has only intensified the equity debate. Others say it’s simply unfair to measure students’ academic preparedness based on how well they perform during a single afternoon’s test.

“We always felt the SAT wasn’t super-representative of our students’ four years in high school,” says Matt Wallace, director of admissions at Plymouth State University, which dropped the SAT requirement five years ago. “They go to an exam for four hours on a Saturday. Say that student has test anxiety or a head cold. It’s not really reflective of their four years.”

Tara Payne, vice president of enrollment at Granite State College, agrees. “I think research is showing that the ability to grind through your classes as a day-to-day demonstration of your capability is far more an indicator of what’s possible in a college classroom than a test on a rainy Saturday,” she says.

What Really Matters
So what do colleges and universities weigh when considering someone for admission?

Grade point average is the number one factor cited by admissions officials, but a number of other elements may also be taken into account—among them, completion of a college prep curriculum, personal essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and life experiences.

“We also look at what students are doing when they’re not in the classroom,” says Wallace. “Band and student government are all great, but some students don’t have the ability to participate because of their home life. They are working or caring for parents. Being actively engaged in giving back to the community is another huge indicator [of collegiate success].”

“When we dropped the SAT, we started referring to holistic reviewing,” he adds.  “If a student had a family loss and we see in one semester their grades dropped and we were able to ascertain what happened and the student recovered, we want to work with those students as well. The SAT doesn’t capture those individual circumstances.”

Not Obsolete
Still, the SAT has its defenders.

“While many colleges are becoming test-optional, we still encourage students to take SATs multiple times in order to maximize their scores because when applying to competitive colleges, it’s in the student’s best interest to showcase as much as they can in the application process,” says Scott Power, director of outreach and communications for the NH College and University Council. “And with New Hampshire using the SAT as the state assessment now, it enables students to take the test once at no cost.”

The SAT became the state of NH’s official assessment tool for 11th grade students in 2016, replacing the Smarter Balanced statewide test.

Switching to the SAT was seen as a means of increasing the participation rate, reducing duplication for students taking both tests and allowing students to take the SAT for free.

And more students than ever are taking the SAT nationally—some 2.1 million in the Class of 2018 alone, according to Jaslee Carayol, associate director for media relations at The College Board, which administers the SAT.

“What has been true for decades holds true today: All colleges accept SAT or ACT scores and the vast majority require them during the application process,” she says, citing College Board data.

Carayol also points to a new national validity study, conducted in May 2019, that indicates test scores, combined with grades, are the best predictor of first-year college success.

“On average, SAT scores add 15 percent more predictive power above grades alone for understanding how students will perform in college,” the report states. The study was based on data from more than 223,000 students in 171 four-year colleges and universities.

Even at test-optional schools, many students include SAT scores in their application packages. Of the 865 active students in their first year at Keene State College, only 320 did not submit SAT results, meaning 63 percent did, according to Peg Richmond, director of admissions. At Southern NH University, where about 95 percent of the students take courses online, roughly 25 percent of the incoming 2019 freshman class submitted SAT scores, according to officials there.

The NH Department of Education takes no position on use of standardized testing in the application process.

Colleges and universities “have to follow their own process about how they admit students to their institutions,” says Frank Edelblut, state commissioner of education. “My hope is that those policies are transparent and fair and accessible to students across New Hampshire.”

Fairness and Diversity
Fairness and accessibility are among the chief reasons cited by admissions officials for dropping the SAT requirement. They point to everything from the cost of the test, which can exceed $50, to its perceived discrimination against students from low-income or less-educated households who traditionally don’t perform as well on the test.

The College Board disputes that charge, stating that, “Years of research have consistently demonstrated that the SAT is a valid predictor of first-year college success for all students, regardless of gender, race or socio-economic status.”

Still, the College Board has tried to address some of the criticism with its recent introduction of an “adversity score” component to the test. The measure grades applicants on 15 factors such as the incidence of crime or poverty in a student’s neighborhood or school, allowing school officials to weigh the applicant’s test results and adversity score in considering admissions.

But the College Board may be coming late to the game. New Hampshire colleges and universities say they’ve been working for years to level the playing field and promote diversity, often with measurable and favorable results.

“The [College Board’s] adversity score is formalizing what most colleges try to do already in understanding a student’s environment,” says McGann of UNH. “Every high school provides a profile of the high school community, the diversity of the community. … Responsible institutions were already trying to assess students’ environmental context.”

Richmond says Keene State has a “multicultural recruitment plan” to reach prospective first-generation college students and those from neighborhoods with higher diversity. This year’s freshman class saw an increase in diversity of about 1%.

Southern NH University maintains “a really robust diversity office” to help students who might need services, and has built a virtual version of the office for its many online students, according to COO Amelia Manning.

Plymouth State recruits in both inner cities and rural areas throughout New England and because 35 to 40% of students are first-generation college-goers, “We have a strong advisory program for the first year,” Wallace says. The college also offers the TRIO program, which consists of federal programs meant to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds advance through the academic pipeline via individual grants, counseling, tutoring, academic instruction and other services.

Granite State College is unique among other NH institutions in that its focus has been on adult learners since its 1972 founding, according to Payne. The school has undergone numerous name changes over time, but has always sought to ensure that learners from different parts of the state “would have access to higher education and could do so in a flexible and affordable way.”

Its courses are mostly offered online and many students are working full-time, with 83% having some previous course work, she adds. The school has an open admissions policy, requiring only a high school diploma or GED for acceptance.

Ivy League Dartmouth, among the highest-ranked colleges in the country, takes several measures to ensure fair access and “reviews every applicant in the context of available opportunities and efforts,” says Julie Bonette, media relations officer.

Dartmouth offers a fee waiver for qualified applicants and is a partner with QuestBridge, an organization that helps low-income students apply to and pay for 40 selective colleges and universities.

While it is alone in the state in its requirement for SAT results for admission consideration, Dartmouth on its website notes that “it’s not all about the numbers” and that it has a holistic admissions policy.

“Holistic admissions is grounded in the concept that the whole is more than merely the sum of its parts,” the website reads. “At Dartmouth, this idea is at the forefront of our application review process.”

(The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science, based in Boston, also requires SAT results for undergraduate admissions but offers only graduate programs at its NH location in Manchester, according to Power of the NH College and University Council.)

Maintaining High Standards
As for whether ending SAT requirements represents a softening or “dumbing down” of admission standards, college officials say the opposite is true.

Richmond at Keene State College says officials have noted an increase in the average GPA of applicants since the requirement was dropped—a trend seconded by Manning at Southern NH University. Since dropping the SAT, “We’ve also made improvements in our one- and two-year retention rates and our graduation rates,” she adds. “Those outcomes speak
for themselves.”

Standards aren’t higher or lower, says Wallace at Plymouth State, “They’re just different” and fairer. “Universities that are really selective using SAT scores are really missing out on a lot of good candidates.”

While competition for students is high, admissions officials say that has no bearing on decisions to drop the SAT requirement.

“I would not compromise our standards to build a bigger class,” says Richmond, echoing the sentiments of many.
McGann of UNH says eliminating barriers to the college application process may have an especially beneficial side effect in NH, with its low unemployment rate and high workforce demand.

“New Hampshire as a state needs to encourage more kids to go to college,” he says. “We have an aging population and a shrinking population. To meet workforce needs, New Hampshire has to do a better job of retaining high school graduates at colleges and universities in the state.”

School officials further point out that admissions requirements can be reexamined as needed. UNH’s “test-optional” pilot program will be monitored and evaluated at the end of three years. Other schools plan ongoing validity studies to determine how students entering with and without SAT scores fare as they progress through their college education.

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