To test or not to test

Is Chico State’s reliance on admissions testing helpful or hurtful?

DO ADMISSIONS TESTS WORK? That’s the question we asked John Swiney, the director of admissions at Chico State University, which like many universities requires entering students to take the SAT or ACT.

DO ADMISSIONS TESTS WORK? That’s the question we asked John Swiney, the director of admissions at Chico State University, which like many universities requires entering students to take the SAT or ACT.

Photo By Tom Angel

If you want to go to college, you have to take a test, right? You know, lay out 28 bucks to a testing service and waste a perfectly good Saturday morning filling in little boxes with a No. 2 pencil.

Well, maybe not. The fact is, colleges are changing their admissions procedures these days, and many of them—some 700 nationwide—now allow students the option of applying without submitting test scores.

If you were listening to NPR’s All Things Considered on Jan. 4, you may have caught a report on one such school, Bates College, in Maine. Twenty years ago, Bates made testing optional, and last fall it issued a report on the results: There was no meaningful difference in how students who submitted tests and those who did not performed in college.

Moreover, Bates administrators learned, offering the no-test option greatly increased the number of minority applicants to the college, students who’d done pretty well in high school but hadn’t exactly nailed the SAT.

So why continue with admissions testing, if it doesn’t have predictive value and in fact may serve to screen out otherwise excellent students? This is a question many colleges, as well as testing skeptics, have been asking lately.

We posed it to John Swiney, who’s been admissions director at Chico State University for the past four years. He’s spent more than 20 years working in the field of college admissions, so it was no surprise that his response was anything but simple.

Chico State, like the other state universities, relies mostly on grades and test scores in deciding whom to admit. It factors an applicant’s grade-point average in his or her sophomore- and junior-year college-prep courses and SAT or ACT test score into what is called an “eligibility index” score, with grades carrying 75 percent of the weight.

However, applicants with GPAs of 3.0 or above do not have to take a test, Swiney said. They are automatically eligible for admission to their local state university, though not necessarily to one elsewhere in the state. Some universities, such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Chico State, are “impacted,” which means they receive far more applications than they have space for and are able to be more selective when it comes to out-of-area students.

Ninety percent of Chico’s students come from outside the service area, and the university now requires all of them to take a test, no matter how good their grades, Swiney said. They also must obtain a “slightly higher” eligibility index score, 3200, than the systemwide minimum of 2900. A GPA of 2.8 and SAT score of 1000 (out of 1600 possible) would suffice.

Currently, the average admitted student has a GPA of 3.4 and a score of 1070 on the SAT.

“Being impacted means we have raised the bar on admissions,” Swiney said.

But Chico State also has been working mightily in recent years to increase student diversity. Could this across-the-board testing requirement be working against that goal by keeping out minority students who might be good candidates otherwise?

Not really, Swiney replied. In fact, Chico is getting a significant number of applications from students of color—36.5 percent of total applications. “The admissions policy is not the issue,” he said. “We’re getting excellent diversity in our applicant pool.”

Getting the students to come to Chico is a much bigger challenge, he said. Only 22 percent of the students of color who applied to Chico State for fall 2004 ended up enrolling here. The good news is that the figure represents an increase: In fall 2002, only 25 percent of the applicants were students of color, and only 18.5 percent of them enrolled.

It’s hard to convince urban black or Latino students to come to a town in Northern California farm country, Swiney explained. Plus it’s much more expensive to go away to school than to live at home and attend the local college. That’s why schools like Dominguez Hills and L.A. State are highly diverse, with no racial group forming a majority.

The question remains: Should admissions tests be abolished? Swiney doesn’t believe so personally, and he’s convinced the faculty wouldn’t want to do so, and they are the ones who drive admissions policy.

At highly selective schools like Bates, he added, it makes sense to make testing optional. Everybody who applies there scores well, so why not base admission on other factors?

But at a school that attracts a middle range of students, like Chico State, test scores and grades remain the best predictors of college success.

The reality is that it’s still relatively easy for anyone to go to college, Swiney noted. “When you look across the national scene, only about 10 percent of the colleges are highly selective,” he said. “Perhaps only the top third would keep anyone out [who met basic requirements]. Two thirds of colleges are wide open. Everybody will get in.”

Swiney knows that grades and test scores are not perfect predictors. It’s always important to consider other factors, too. But past behavior, as measured by test scores and qualified by grades, is still the best predictor of future behavior. And, as long as Chico State continues accepting a substantial number of minority candidates, tests will be part of the process.