Mellon Foundation Funds Three-Year Study of MHC's SAT-Optional Experiment

The results are expected to interest educators nationwide, who have been deeply engaged in the debate about the appropriate role of standardized testing in college admissions.

For immediate release

October 9, 2002

SOUTH HADLEY, MA-- Concerned over the exaggerated role of the SAT in the college admissions process and the test’s limitations as a predictor of student success, Mount Holyoke College in 2001 began a five-year experiment of making the SAT optional for admission, joining a small group of selective liberal arts colleges to do so. Now the College has launched a three-year study to determine the effects of that policy, through a $290,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

We believe that the SAT has become a negative force in higher education, given the unwarranted centrality that the test has assumed in college admissions nationwide,” said Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations. “Mount Holyoke encourages high school students to focus instead on activities that promote long-term intellectual and personal growth rather than on time-consuming and, often expensive, strategies to raise their SAT scores.”

The new admission policy emphasizes the College’s traditional holistic approach to the applicant selection process that includes, among many components, a comprehensive review of a student’s high school record, rigorous writing requirements including several essays, and submission of a graded paper from a high school course. Admissions officers also probe for less tangible qualities such as intellectual curiosity, motivation, leadership, creativity, and a social conscience.

The College’s intent was to cast a wider net for applicants with strong academic potential and exceptional talents who may have been previously discouraged from applying because of their performance on the SAT. Preliminary data from the class of 2005, the first class admitted under the new policy, show that the College succeeded in casting a wider net for students who, despite being disadvantaged by the SAT, have the intellectual and motivational qualities that Mount Holyoke requires. While nearly one in four applicants for the class of 2005 and one in three for the class of 2006 chose not to submit their SAT scores, the new class is as academically strong as in previous years, but decidedly more diverse.

The College has developed a three-year plan for studying the impact of its SAT-optional policy. What effect has the policy had on the College’s applicant pool? Why do students choose to submit, or not to submit, their SAT scores? As a group, how do non-submitters compare to submitters in academic performance and activities outside the classroom? These are among the questions to be answered.

Results will be made available to the Mellon Foundation and to a wider audience of educators nationwide, who have been closely watching the College’s experiment. “We hope our experience will encourage other institutions to take a critical look at standardized testing in their admissions processes. We will be pleased to share our research with them,” said President Joanne V. Creighton.

Elements of the research project include:

  • Admission Data. The College will analyze aggregate admission data from SAT submitters and non-submitters in order to answer the questions: Has the change in policy resulted in changes to the profile of Mount Holyoke’s applicant pool, admitted students, and matriculants? What factors influence an applicant to submit or not submit a score? And can we draw any meaningful conclusions about non-submitters that predict whether their performance will be quantifiably different from that of submitters over four years?
  • Survey of Inquirers, Applicants, and Matriculants. The College hopes to learn the effect of the SAT-optional policy on those who consider Mount Holyoke but in the end do not apply or do not matriculate. A better understanding of the motivation and strategies of those who express interest in the College might shed more light on the differences in submission rates that vary by income and ethnicity.
  • Academic Performance. The College will track the aggregate academic performance and extracurricular activities of submitters and non-submitters. Academic performance will be measured by a range of quantifiable criteria such as grade-point average and progress toward graduation, while qualitative data will be collected on other measures of success such as leadership roles and civic engagement.
  • Persistence Study. Researchers will follow submitters and non-submitters in an effort to better determine reasons for success and attrition between the two groups. In-depth interviews will be completed with a sample of student volunteers during their first three years at the College. The data will be analyzed to determine attrition and persistence patterns and measure the level of engagement of both groups.
  • Assessments of Admission Committee Ratings. Without SAT scores, do admission officers have enough information to make informed decisions? Will an applicant’s decision to withhold SAT scores bias a reader against her application? A sampling of applications from submitters and non-submitters will be read twice, once with scores provided and once without. The results will be compared to determine if there is a significant difference in ratings.
  • Guidance Counselor Focus Groups. Guidance counselors are important opinion leaders for both students and parents, and are keenly aware of the issues related to standardized testing. During the next three years, the College will conduct focus groups with guidance counselors around the country to assess whether their opinions and attitudes about the SAT change over time and whether regional differences exist. As the SAT debate continues, guidance counselors will be queried about how their advising practices respond to changing admission options.

For further information, please contact Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations, at 413-538-2515.