Strong grades replace SATs

Salisbury Univ. gets OK for experiment in application policy

December 02, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Joining a national trend, Salisbury University will become Maryland's first public four-year college to allow some prospective freshmen to apply for admission without submitting scores from standardized tests such as the SAT.

The university system's governing Board of Regents approved yesterday a five-year pilot program at the Eastern Shore campus that will waive the test requirement for applicants with high school grade averages of 3.5 and higher.

Salisbury officials said they hope the new policy - which will take effect next year - will create a more racially and economically diverse student body. They are seeking an increase in applications from college-ready students who might otherwise be dissuaded by the school's relatively high SAT average of about 1,100 - the third-highest in the university system.

"Quite frankly, we believe the SAT is biased against families of low income," said Salisbury President Janet Dudley-Eshbach, pointing out that poor students have less access to costly test-preparation services that have been shown to boost scores.

Concerns about the fairness of the SAT have fueled the popularity of test-optional admissions in recent years, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, an advocacy group critical of the way standardized tests are used.

Since 2004, more than 20 colleges and universities - including George Mason University in Virginia and Bennington College in Vermont - have announced new test-optional admissions policies, he said.

"There is a growing body of data about how successful test-score-optional admissions has been, and there is an increasing comfort level that admissions deans and other policymakers have with it," Schaeffer said.

About a quarter of the schools in U.S. News and World Report's top 100 liberal arts college rankings now employ some variation of test-optional admissions, according to FairTest.

A spokeswoman for the College Board, which administers the SAT, played down the trend, saying that it is still confined mostly to less-selective and small colleges and that most students still submit SAT scores, even when it's not required.

In making their case to the regents yesterday, Salisbury officials pointed to an in-house study that showed high school grades better predicted college success than test scores did.

The average high school grade average of Salisbury's current freshman class is 3.4. Future applicants with high school averages below 3.5 will still be required to submit standardized test scores with their applications.

"I think it's a very safe position to take, because we know students with a 3.5 average are going to be successful," said Ellen Neufeldt, Salisbury's vice president of student affairs.

Salisbury's pilot program contrasts with an experiment at Towson University, which recently began admitting students with low high school grades but high SATs. That combination appears more often in male students, who are underrepresented at Towson.

Several regents expressed reservations about Salisbury's proposal. But most said they wanted to see the results of the five-year experiment before considering a permanent change to the system's requirement that all campuses take standardized tests into consideration for admissions.

Regent Thomas B. Finan Jr., who voted against the proposal, worried about sending the wrong message to the state's high school students and lowering the prestige of the entire system. "To me, there will be the perception of actual reduction of standards," Finan said.

Finan also cautioned his fellow regents: "I think adoption of the request will force some other institutions to quickly follow, because they will be at a competitive disadvantage."

In interviews yesterday, officials with the University of Baltimore, Bowie State University and Frostburg State University said they have been evaluating test-optional policies but have not made decisions.

"Nobody [else] has approached me with any interest in doing this," system Chancellor William S. Kirwan said in an interview. "My inclination would be to not do anything until we've had a chance to examine the effect of [Salisbury's] pilot, and my sense is that the board would be reluctant to expand this at this time."

Salisbury officials stressed that they don't expect the test-optional program to result in radical changes to their admissions practice. In previous discussions with regents, they predicted that only about 20 percent of applicants will likely decline to submit standardized test scores.

Some critics say test-optional admissions policies not only reach out to students with lower scores but might be designed to make the participating schools look more desirable on national rankings.

The reason: lower-scoring students might not be included in the school's reported SAT averages, and a larger applicant pool for the same number of spots makes the school look more selective.

"It's a way to manage the SAT scores you report," said C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, College Park, which is not considering test-optional admissions.

Salisbury's Neufeldt denied that such considerations played into the school's proposal: "I'm not saying we would be upset with that positive benefit, but that's not the intention."

President Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County worried that the trend could discourage students from taking standardized tests in high school and put them at a disadvantage later if they aspire to graduate schools and careers that require passing entrance and licensure exams.

"I believe, as an African-American educator, that standardized tests will become more important if we want to see [minority students] enter and succeed in the professions, from medicine to teaching," he said.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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