April 22, 2018
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Bowdoin, other optional-test colleges buy test score names

By Janet Lorin, Bloomberg News

NEW YORK — Colleges from Bowdoin in Maine to Pitzer in California dropped the SAT entrance exam as a requirement, saying it favors the affluent, penalizes minorities and doesn’t predict academic success. What they don’t advertise is they find future students by buying names of kids who do well on the test.

Pitzer buys as many as 100,000 names a year based on test scores from the College Board, owner of the SAT, to search for applicants, even after the school became “test-optional” in the 2003-2004 year. Wake Forest University, which stopped requiring the SAT or rival ACT test for students entering in 2009, also buys names, as does Bowdoin, which made scores optional in 1969.

Students are being duped by some schools into thinking that test scores don’t matter, when they matter a great deal for marketing outreach and prestige, said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which neither requires the tests nor buys names. Test-optional colleges that buy names of high-scoring students are hypocritical, he said.

“They take a stance that looks principled but is strategic,” Botstein said in an interview. “They say ‘I’m going to show myself to be open,’ but in reality they’re completely buying into the definition of a good student that is guided by the test.”

The College Board sells names to more than 1,000 colleges, using biographical information students provide when they register for the preliminary SAT and SAT exams. Students can opt out of having their names in the company’s search service. The company and its competitor, Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., both nonprofit, sell names for 33 cents apiece.

Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Maine, was the first school to become test optional, according to FairTest, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston. Bowdoin adopted the policy to let applicants decide whether test results “accurately reflected their academic ability and potential,” according to the school’s website. Since then, dozens of schools have followed suit, a trend that accelerated in the past 10 years as more colleges questioned possible biases in the tests.

That hasn’t stopped universities from using the test in other ways. Smith College, an all-women’s school in Northampton, Mass., paid the College Board about $20,000 in the past academic year for names of students with “above-average” scores, according to Audrey Smith, the dean of enrollment.

Founded in 1871, Smith buys about 60,000 names annually, including those of 10,000 high school sophomores, which “might be inconsistent” with its test-optional policy, Smith said.

“This is one of the very few ways to directly get at young women who we know are going to college next year,” Smith said in an interview. “This is a good way to introduce ourselves.”

There are about 1,600 four-year, nonprofit colleges in the U.S. and fewer than 5 percent don’t require a standardized entrance exam for admissions for their main body of students, said Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board, citing Carnegie Foundation Classifications. FairTest spokesman Bob Schaeffer said the percentage of test-optional schools is “much higher.”

Almost all schools that used the College Board’s Student Search Service — with a database of some 6.5 million student names — before going test optional continue to use it to recruit applicants, Steinberg said.

Another benefit to test-optional colleges of recruiting students with high test results is that it can help raise their average entrance-exam scores, a metric used in determining some national rankings and a measure of prestige. Since students who don’t test well may refrain from submitting scores, that leaves high performers, or those who can afford prep courses and pay fees to retake t he test several times, to bolster a school’s average scores.

Between 60 percent and 80 percent of applicants to test- optional schools submit their SAT scores, Steinberg said in an e-mail, citing College Board data.

In 2004, Pitzer President Laura Trombley wrote that the SAT “doesn’t really make any sense anymore.” The school, one of seven institutions comprising the Claremont Colleges in California, ranked 70th in the 2002 U.S. News & World Report list of liberal arts colleges. That year, the school’s average SAT score for verbal and math combined was 1,234, according to Pitzer data. In 2004, aft er it went test optional, its ranking climbed to 59, while the average score rose to 1,246. By 2010, it ranked 46th, while the score reached 1,293.

“It helped certainly to improve our rankings,” Trombley said. “That’s going to have a positive effect if our SAT scores improved.”

Pitzer, founded in 1963, buys names of students based on test scores, majors and geography, according to the college. The school doesn’t have the name recognition of some schools and needs to seek out qualified students, said Trombley, who sees no contradiction in buying the names.

“We wanted to welcome more students and not eliminate a pool of students,” she said.

Buying names of students based on their test scores doesn’t run contrary to Bowdoin’s test-optional policy, said Scott Meiklejohn, the school’s dean of admissions and financial aid.

“If there were a convenient way to search for and reach out to 11th graders based on who is going to submit a wonderful essay, or who exhibits exceptional curiosity and motivation in the classroom, or who earns outstanding teacher recommendations, or who has shown a serious commitment to interesting activities outside the classroom . . . I would use it,” Meiklejohn said in an email.

The liberal arts school with about 1,750 students, received test scores from 83 percent of the most recent class of applicants, Meiklejohn said.

Wake Forest University announced its test-optional policy in 2008. In a letter to faculty and staff at the time, it said that standardized testing continued to be biased against many minority students, “who scored significantly lower than white students.” The Winston-Salem, N.C.-based school held a conference the following year on admissions policy and standardized testing, drawing par ticipants from universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

“The SAT is the most rigorously researched and designed test in the world, and is consistently shown to be a fair and valid predictor of college success for all students, regardless of gender, race, or socio-economic status,” said Peter Kauffmann, a spokesman at the New York-based College Board. “The idea that differences in test scores among different groups of students is somehow th e result of testing bias is an idea that is largely rejected within mainstream psychology.”

The SAT has been known by various names over the course of its history, including Scholastic Aptitude Test, Scholastic Assessment Test and SAT Reasoning Test.

Scott Gomer, a spokesman for ACT, declined to comment on the criticism about possible biases in standardized tests.

Wake Forest buys names of students based on test scores, self-reported grade-point average, geography and Advanced Placement performance, admissions dean Martha Allman said. It reaches out to students through mailings, the Internet and high school visits, she said.

“If we were only buying the names of SAT high scorers and those were the only names we were recruiting and inviting to campus, yes that would be contradictory,” Allman said in an interview. ‘ ‘The SAT is one of many factors.”

Courtney Abernathy, who will enter Wake Forest this year as a freshman, earned a 3.9 grade-point average at her Plymouth, N.H., high school. She decided against submitting her test scores to the college because her results were average, she said.

Abernathy said she wasn’t bothered that some classmates may have been recruited when the school bought their names.

“It does get Wake Forest’s name to students who score high, and gives people like me who didn’t score high a fair chance to get accepted.”

The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., dropped the standardized test requirement beginning with the class that entered in 2006. It stopped buying names about eight years ago because it was no longer cost effective, said Ann Bowe McDermott, the director of admissions.

Instead, the school spent the money to help pay for travel and add staff to recruit applicants outside of New England and low-income and minority students, she said in an interview.

“If we were buying the names of students who scored very high on the SATs, to buy those names would be somewhat contrary to the message we would send about the importance of standardized testing,” McDermott said.

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