Burning Question for Jennifer Delahunty, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

In fall 2008, the National Association of College Admission Counseling released a year-long study on standardized testing. The study encouraged colleges to analyze how tests do—or do not—serve their institutions and their students. How is Kenyon responding to this challenge? Would Kenyon consider dropping the SAT?

Standardized admissions testing is a tender and sometimes volatile subject for students and admissions officers alike. Students who eagerly attend our information sessions and ask about creative writing workshops or placement rates for medical school will often come up to us afterwards, wince, and say apologetically: "I love Kenyon, but my scores aren't strong." We tell these students they are not their test scores, that we assess nine factors in our application reading. And that is true: Kenyon is not score-driven in our admissions decisions.

In keeping with that philosophy, for the first time Kenyon is considering a policy adopted by more than 750 other colleges and universities throughout the United States: test optional.

Up until this point, Kenyon has required admissions tests for the simple reason that they are one more data-point to use when evaluating 4,500 applications for 450 spots in the first-year class. Our most recent validity study indicated that the best single predictor of Kenyon student success (as measured by college grade point average) is the high school GPA. When combined with the SAT, however, we had a slightly better predictive tool. But only slightly.

Based on many studies, we know that test scores, more than anything, are an indicator of the advantages and opportunities that a particular student has had, e.g., the rigor of the high school, for example, or the amount of test preparation. The greatest correlation, however, arises when comparing standardized test scores to parental income. More often than not, those students whose parents are middle-class and above do better on the exams.

Over the coming months, the admissions office will work with the faculty to assess both the advantages and disadvantages of changing this fundamental admissions policy at Kenyon. In April, we will report our findings to the admissions and financial aid committee of the Board of Trustees.

In our deliberations, we will consider the advantages of discontinuing the SAT and ACT. Here's a partial list:

  • Increased academic profile. Since those proud of their test scores will be the ones who submit them, and those with weaker scores will opt out, our academic profile could experience a little lift.
  • Increased applications. More applications will probably come our way as we appear on the "test optional" lists.
  • Removal of barriers. Eliminating test scores will knock down a barrier to admission and make Kenyon more accessible to students who don't have the advantages of test preparation (a billion-dollar industry, like the tests themselves).
  • Serving students. Not requiring tests serves those who are underrepresented and is part of the "student friendly" approach that distinguishes Kenyon admissions.

With the obvious advantages of becoming test optional, why keep those dreaded exams? There are legitimate reasons—from both academic and admissions perspectives. Some members of Kenyon's faculty feel the tests help them advise students, and Kenyon's admissions officers feel the exams help them "norm," or compare, students from the more than two thousand high schools our applicants attend. Without scores, we'll need a proxy—a graded paper, a portfolio, subject tests, something else to evaluate. The alternatives may require more work by the student and perhaps more time by the admissions office, both to process and assess. While eliminating testing may appear at first blush to make things simpler for all, the change could actually complicate matters.

At our core, we admissions officers fancy ourselves midwives, delivering high school students who are a joy to teach to the faculty of Kenyon. In that vein, standardized testing is a kind of ultrasound—showing a vague outline of the college student the applicant might become. And while no expectant parent today would go without an ultrasound, we do know that healthy babies are born without them ... just as brilliant students will graduate from Kenyon without ever sitting through a golden autumn Saturday morning filling in the bubbles with a number two pencil.

Jennifer Delahunty has been the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon since 2003.

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