At last some hope

June 30, 2008

Mary Boone ( my co-author on the HBR article) sent me the attached circular from her old college. Good to see someone taking a stand for treating students as human, realising the limit of explicit tests and standing up for education not processing information bundles (the students and the course material). Everytime I travel on the “T” in Boston I see adverts guaranteeing to increase your SATS score, something which is meant (although it cannot be) to be an independent measure of intelligence. It amazes me that more people don’t see the contradictions.

To Alumni and Friends:

Recently we announced that Wake Forest will no longer require prospective students to submit scores on the SAT or the ACT — two standardized tests that universities typically use to determine who is admitted to their undergraduate class.

In an email to our constituents in May, we shared details of the study that led to our decision and invited you to be in touch with feedback about this action. I appreciate the feedback that you have sent to the University and I am writing now to respond to that feedback and to underscore the importance of your involvement and support.

There are three key points that are helpful in understanding this new policy.

First, some of you have asked how this new policy affects our admissions standards. As in the past, Wake Forest seeks to enroll students who excel at the very highest level in high school. We are still looking for excellent high school performance in the most rigorous curriculum available, evidence of talent, motivation, character, curiosity, maturity and strong writing ability. To ensure that we enroll the nation’s highest achievers who are also people of character and promise, our admissions staff will review all of the measures of achievement our applicants submit and take every opportunity to know each applicant well. By making the SAT optional, we are not moving away from our current standard of excellence, but rather claiming greater opportunity to make our decisions on more reliable predictors of success.

Second, Wake Forest is absolutely committed to equity and we do not like the idea that just by its very nature, one test might eliminate qualified students who would do well here. There are many excellent students who just aren’t good standardized test-takers. Similarly, there are those who ‘test well’ but do not work as hard or have the academic discipline needed to succeed at Wake Forest. Given that recent studies show that high test scores — especially on the SAT — are not the best predictors of college success, we worried that reliance on standardized testing narrowed our ability to attract students who could and would succeed if they were admitted. This change makes it more likely that very hard working students with lower scores will apply and be judged on their body of high school work, rather than a single test score.

And by making the SAT optional, we are affirming that Wake Forest will not be guided by standardized test scores in the admissions process, and that we are open to all the factors that qualify a student.

Third, we believe that this decision is consistent with our heritage, motto and belief system. Wake Forest has a long and honorable history of paying attention to people and accepting them for their character and talent. Because we are small in university terms, we can do a better job of getting to know the students who apply. The SAT and ACT tests are proven to be biased toward those who can afford to take the prep courses that raise scores. Thus, if we allow the SAT to continue playing a key role in the admissions decision, we will increasingly get the student body that the SAT predicts, not necessarily the kind of student body that we want. This change is a step to preserve what is best in the Wake Forest tradition and return us to a more individualized consideration process that allowed many of our current alumni to enjoy the benefits of a Wake Forest education.

Wake Forest’s history is replete with stories from alumni, especially those from families of modest means, who were able to attend because of personal attention from a perceptive admissions officer, an interested faculty member, a dedicated administrator – someone who recognized potential in an eager young person. Our aim is to ensure that this important characteristic of Wake Forest is not only retained, but strengthened. We want students who are hungry for learning and able to succeed, whatever their economic or cultural backgrounds. We want to evaluate them personally, just as we give personal attention in the classroom. We want to ensure that Wake Forest is welcoming, challenging and a place where those who want to do well and do good for humanity will find a supportive alma mater. Far from changing Wake Forest into something else, this step is a means of preserving one of the most honorable principles of our heritage.

You should know that our decision on the SAT optional policy has the full support of the Board of Trustees. Our admissions staff, senior leadership and many, many faculty members agree that the change will add significantly to our distinction. As with other important decisions, we will study this move carefully as it unfolds.

In closing, let me add that Wake Forest has, in the course of its history, taken a number of calculated risks that have led to the University’s status as a leading national university. The move to Winston-Salem, the decision to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, the establishment of our professional schools, the change in our relationship with the NC Baptist Convention that created an autonomous Board of Trustees, the Plan for the Class of 2000 that gave our students and faculty new tools of technology – all of these steps and many other less visible ones have served us exceedingly well, even though they created some controversy at the time they were initiated.

As alumnus Gerald Johnson (’11), revered editor of the Baltimore Sun, once wrote, ”independent thinking and bold assertion do not make for tranquility.” We certainly respect and appreciate the opinions of those who differ with the decision to drop the SAT and ACT as requirements for admission, but we believe that this decision is ethical and based in sound research. We will keep you informed of the results of our actions.

As I said in earlier in this letter, please be in touch with your questions and ideas about this decision or any aspect of our future. We have updated the frequently-asked questions about this change based on some of the questions and feedback we have received and hope these points will be helpful to your understanding of the change. I invite you to visit the site here. Also online is our initial FAQ, which described particular aspects of this change (application process, NCAA considerations for athletes, etc.), links to the research that led to our decision, and some links to media stories; those are available here.

With warm regards and thanks for your invaluable support,

Nathan Hatch

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