Strong Grades Replace SATs

Gadi Dechter, Baltimore Sun, Dec. 2, 2006

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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