A small but growing list of colleges is de-emphasizing standardized tests in their admissions processes.

TIMES FILE PHOTO - A group of high school students tour Lewis & Clark, which has a test-optional admissions policy.The deadline to apply to Portland State University for the 2018 fall quarter is Dec. 1. University of Oregon's deadline is Jan. 15, and Oregon State's is Feb. 1.

That means that the clock is ticking for high school seniors to start refining and submitting their applications — and possibly to squeeze in one more ACT or SAT exam in the hopes of improving their scores.

The SAT and ACT are standardized tests meant to measure a high school student's academic ability and college preparedness, and sitting for the hours-long exams is a rite of passage for any high school junior or senior hoping to attend a traditional four-year college. But for students interested in attending one of a small but growing list of colleges and universities, an SAT or ACT score may not be necessary.

"There are students who are taking rigorous courses in high school, doing good work in those courses, and their standardized test scores don't reflect that rigor or caliber of work," said Erica Johnson, director of admissions for Lewis & Clark College in Portland. "There are also students who come out of academic traditions where testing has been de-emphasized, and so they're not prepared for a three-hour, Saturday, multiple-choice exam, because perhaps their schooling hasn't prepared them for that type of assessment."

Those are the reasons, Johnson said, that Lewis & Clark has had a test-optional application policy since 1991.

While Lewis & Clark was among the first colleges to have such a policy, a list of such schools maintained by the nonprofit FairTest recently grew to 950 accredited schools, more than 275 of which have made U.S. News & World Report's annual college ranking list.

At Lewis & Clark, applicants who don't want to submit an SAT or ACT score can instead provide two pieces of graded school work (one written and one quantitative, such as a math test or chemistry lab) and an additional teacher's recommendation (the school already requires one letter in the general application process).

"If we think about the SAT having two sections, we're looking to see two examples of graded work from those two different sides of the curriculum," Johnson said. "We use those graded works and extra teacher recommendations to make our decision. We do that without the use of any test scores."

Different schools have different test-optional or standardized test "de-emphasizing" polices — some schools require examples of student work, like Lewis & Clark, as an alternative, while other schools don't have any such required alternatives. Other schools only will use standardized test scores as backup criteria if students don't meet a certain GPA or class rank.

While the test-optional trend originated with private, progressive liberal arts campuses like Lewis & Clark, Bard College and Sarah Lawrence, public schools like Eastern Oregon University, Western Oregon University and Oregon State's Cascades Campus in Bend now appear on FairTest's list.

Karen Stabeno, the director of college and career readiness and counseling department chair at Beaverton High School, said that for some students, whether or not a school is test-optional can be a factor when considering where to apply.

"There are some students who may have lower test scores, and there's a real disconnect between their test scores and their performance in high school grade-wise, even taking an AP or an IB course, because they're just poor test-takers," Stabeno said. "It's not a true demonstration of their capabilities. Those kiddos are really looking at colleges that have test-optional policies, and making intentional decisions to apply just to them."

But while test-optional schools are attractive to some, Stabeno said, they haven't necessarily made standardized testing any less relevant. Many of her students at Beaverton High are looking to apply to schools like Oregon State, University of Oregon and Portland State, all of which look at SAT and ACT scores when determining admissions — and, perhaps even more importantly, doling out financial aid.

Scott Ball, the academic counselor at Westside Christian High School in Tigard, also pointed to financial aid when discussing the continued importance of college entrance exams.

"There's certainly more and more colleges that are (de-emphasizing entrance exams), but as far as what our students do — they don't know where they're going to apply," Ball said. "So if one of the schools they are applying to requires it, they're going to take it. … In fact, it's the other way around, because our students are trying to chase financial aid money. They're taking them more frequently, because they want to improve their scores."

But while SAT and ACT scores are still necessary on most college applications, both Ball and Stabeno said that they believe a student's GPA is a better indicator of success in college. For Ball, a grade-point average reflects not only a student's intelligence, but also their ability to follow directions and be productive, skills that are both key to doing well in college and beyond.

"If we're all honest, you don't have to be the most intelligent kid to get good grades," he said. "You just have to, a lot of times, work hard. You have to be a teacher pleaser. You've got to hit deadlines, you've got to take direction… if you did it in high school, you should be able to do it in college."

"I would look for upward grade trends on a transcript, and upward rigor on a transcript," Stabeno said. "Have they decided to ease off and slack off senior year, or are they increasing that rigor?"

While it's not likely that the SAT and ACT will become irrelevant anytime soon, Stabeno did say that she definitely has seen an increase in schools de-emphasizing the exams in the last year.

"And I wouldn't be surprised if that continues to grow," she said.

Blair Stenvick
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