Worcester Polytechnic Institute announced on Monday that it will adopt a “test-blind” admission policy. Starting this fall, the institution will no longer consider ACT or SAT scores for all applicants as part of an eight-year pilot.
WPI, which adopted a test-optional policy in 2007, has long stood out among institutions that don’t require the ACT and SAT. For one thing, it’s a campus of fewer than 5,000 undergraduates that emphasizes science, technology, math, and engineering — and not a liberal-arts college like those that once represented the vast majority of colleges not requiring standardized tests. In 2017, the institution permanently removed test scores from all financial-aid considerations, a step that many test-optional colleges haven’t taken.
Andrew B. Palumbo, assistant vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions and financial aid at WPI, is a vocal critic of testing requirements. In an interview with The Chronicle on Monday, he discussed why the institution reached its decision to ditch the ACT and SAT altogether, how the pandemic has changed the standardized-testing debate, and the questions he thinks institutional leaders should be asking themselves about their admission requirements.
Why go test-blind instead of remaining test-optional? And how did the pandemic affect WPI’s decision?
Before the pandemic, I felt that test-optional was the right path for WPI. When we went test-optional, in 2007, we were the first nationally ranked STEM institution to do that. Until Case Western Reserve University went test-optional last spring, we were still the only one. We thought more people would have come along, that these colleges that focus on data would actually look at the data, follow the data, and join us in going test-optional.
We had heard a concern from students who said: “Hey, I have to put in this time to apply to these other colleges. So why are you going to tell me that you’re not even going to consider these tests? That seems unfair.”
So while we had been vocal about our concern about the inequities that test scores bring into the process, we also try to center our processes around students. Now, because of the current situation, with our peer institutions having changed their testing policies, we jumped at the chance to go test-blind. If we can help show other institutions the path forward, this could be a real catalyst.
I want to be clear: This policy has nothing to do with Covid. It has everything to do with the inequities that standardized tests reinforce in college admissions.
From my perspective, this is a post-Covid story. It’s going to be very difficult for our peer institutions to go back to test-required. We’re trying to make space for people to move in the other direction.
Last year, 84 percent of your applicants submitted test scores even though WPI didn’t require them. What does that tell you?
That’s part of the reason we moved to test-blind. We had been very vocal about how we don’t worry about the lack of test scores when students don’t submit them, and that we don’t consider a test score, which can be gameable, an academic credential.
Still, the problem is there’s a lot of ambiguity out there, especially with many institutions being pulled into the test-optional movement over the last year because of the pandemic. There’s a lot of reasonable skepticism about whether it’s OK not to submit scores. Students are seeing their friends, and parents are seeing the children of their friends, still going and trying to take these tests.
In previous years, there were applicants we spoke with where we said, “You know, you probably shouldn’t submit that score.” But then they would submit it anyway. And, to us, it felt like too much of a game. We were already as close to test-blind as we could be. We didn’t use these test scores for scholarships. We didn’t use them in any type of rating or ranking. They were just contextual information that didn’t really matter to us a whole lot.
You hear people say, “Oh, it won’t disadvantage you if you don’t submit your score,” but then they might say in the next breath, “But it could help you if you send in your scores.” There’s a cognitive dissonance there.
Going test-blind could further reduce a barrier and provide more clarity. That was a strong motivator for us.
What were the most important factors and/or data points that underpinned WPI’s decision?
There are three. One, we don’t need the test scores to make good admissions decisions. Two, we know that tests have problematic correlations with family income, with race and ethnicity and gender. Three, we know that students are successful here whether or not they submit their test scores. There’s no statistical difference in terms of the retention and six-year graduation rate between a test-score submitter and a non-submitter.
What test-optional allowed us to do was one factor in a multifaceted effort to broaden access and grow the diversity of our student body. From 2007 to last year, the number of women in the entire student body grew from 771 to 1,948. And the number of underrepresented students of color grew from 226 to 646.
We asked ourselves: Had we not reduced that barrier for these students, what would WPI look like today?
An eight-year pilot is a long time. Why eight years?
We believe in data, so we’re going to be looking at annual reports, some larger biannual reports, and success metrics along the way, like four- and six-year graduation rates, and retention rates. A lot of the correlations right now have to do with first-year GPA in college. That doesn’t tell us a whole lot. WPI doesn’t put a lot of stock in test scores and grades, so we want to measure things that matter, not necessarily things that are just benchmarks that other people have looked at.
Many folks in higher education believe ACT and SAT scores are essential. What is the main concern or question you’ve encountered, from faculty members or other campus officials, about the prospect of minimizing the importance of these exams? And how have you responded to that?
Working at a place full of scientists and engineers, people love data. So we’ve centered data in our conversations about testing. The argument for going test-blind is absolutely data driven here. It’s pretty impossible to come up with an argument for why we should require these tests.
But, unfortunately, that’s often not the question that people bring to these conversations. It’s, “Why should we take this thing away?” The biggest concern I’ve heard tends to be from individuals who may currently enjoy a certain amount of power or privilege in the admissions process by virtue of these tests being included. Really, the biggest objections have been personal. Personal anecdotes or strongly held opinions.
We’ve stated very clearly that this is about removing inequities from the process. It’s not something that every single person will agree with. But it’s part of our mission to broaden access, and it’s directly in line with our values.
There’s a widespread perception that when you take ACT and SAT scores off the table, a crucial piece of information is missing, and, therefore, something needs to take its place. Does it?
No. To be fair, most of the people who are saying that are trying to wrap their heads around how they’re going to operationalize this sudden switch to going test-optional. But we have more than enough information in admissions to determine who will be successful, and the last thing we need is for a 17- or 18-year-old to jump through another hoop for us.
Tests have done us a disservice because they’ve encouraged us to be isomorphic, to look left and look right and try to mimic other institutions. When you eliminate these test scores, you open the door to being more thoughtful about why it is we have a certain requirement. How are we going to use that? What does it tell us about that student? And why does that matter to us?
Other institutions have reached out to WPI over the years for advice on reassessing or changing their testing policies. What question do you most often hear from your counterparts at other colleges?
It’s, “How do I sell this to the faculty? How do I convince my board? How do I get my president on board?” The advice that I give is to ground the conversation in data. Whether we’re talking about educators, administrators, or board members, these are people who should be very comfortable and very grounded in data. Start with the national studies, and then start looking at your own data to determine if these tests are too valuable to walk away from. They just aren’t.
The most difficult thing, beyond getting buy-in, is the realization that this is going to make your work in admissions a little bit harder. You have to want to work through that to get a better outcome.
A skeptic hearing about your announcement today might say, “Meh. WPI is a small institution with a special, project-based curriculum — not relevant to folks at other kinds of institutions.” What should they know?
I would want them to know this decision is grounded in data showing that these test scores don’t bring a lot of value. One of the ways these tests are misused is that they’re used as a lazy sorting mechanism. People say, “We’ve got this number. Most or all of these applicants have it. Let’s just measure them all side by side. That would be fair.”
Yet there are plenty of studies that show why that isn’t fair, why high-school context matters. We’re professionals in enrollment management and admissions. If we want to address a problem, we can. But there’s a lot of pressure sitting in the hot seat. You have to want to dig into a potentially contentious debate even if you think this is the right thing to do.
Many colleges that have temporarily suspended their ACT and SAT requirements for admission continue to require scores to determine eligibility for institutional aid. What explains that disconnect? And will it change?
One of the first emails I got this morning was from someone at another college who just honestly wants to change that and is trying to figure out how to do it. Until it’s something that’s actually measured, like the list of which colleges have stopped requiring test scores, we’re not going to see the same level of movement as we’ve seen with test-optional admissions.
There are enrollment and admissions leaders who want to do it, but they don’t know what the road map is, they don’t know who’s done it. And a lot of times you’re talking about proprietary secrets, how you formulate our aid policies. You don’t necessarily want to reveal that to a bunch of people and talk about that.
As you see it, what’s the most meaningful way in which the pandemic has changed the testing debate?
What will be most meaningful will be the classes that these colleges that are test-optional for the first time will bring in. No matter how reluctantly a college might have adopted a test-optional policy, if they put the time and effort in and did it right, this is going to the best class that ever went to that university. Hopefully, enrollment and admissions leaders see that, the faculty and other decision makers see that, and they begin to realize they’re really onto something. And then they can begin to look at other potential barriers preventing them from enrolling great students.
It’s a well-worn path when you repeat a cycle year over year. It can be difficult to do something that adds ambiguity and also a level of challenge to our work. You gotta want it.
Some critics of the ACT and SAT think — or really hope — that the sun is setting on these exams. Are they right, though?
They’re definitely right, to a point. The SAT and the ACT are permanently diminished in the admissions process. Many colleges that adopted an emergency test-optional policy are doubling down for a second year. Some are saying they’re likely to go test-blind. In this moment in time, as a society and as leaders on our campuses, we’re talking so much about issues of inequity that it’s difficult or impossible to have a conversation about testing without addressing the very real inequities that they bake into the admissions process.
Leaving aside the answers they might arrive at, what specific questions should institutional leaders be asking themselves about their testing policies right now?
First of all: Do we need these tests? And, if so, why? And what level of predictive value are we shooting for such that we’re willing to allow these inequities to remain in the process? If this score does provide some value to us, how does that balance with the inherent inequities that these scores bring to the process?
As much as we’ve grounded these conversations in data, they need to be equally grounded in values. Each institution needs to take a long, hard look at how their admissions practices and requirements, in general, match up with their mission, values, and goals. Even the most well-intentioned, well-meaning admissions offices have a lot of work to do. Every year you’ve got to take a look at your process and say, “What isn’t up to snuff?” Testing is just one of the most obvious pieces.
If the idea of eliminating test scores scares you, ask why. Because there’s a problem there that needs to be solved. It might be a concern about extra workload. Or unpredictability. Or how to do a scholarship program without scores. These are all fixable problems, but first you need to identify it as a problem.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.