In an effort to cultivate talented students who don't test well, Temple University says it will become the first national public research university in the Northeast to make standardized test scores optional for admission.
The university expects as many as 150 to 200 students who likely would not have been accepted because of low SAT and ACT scores, but who exhibit other promising attributes, will be admitted for fall 2015. Many of them could come from the Philadelphia School District.
Students who opt not to submit test scores will have to answer written questions designed to assess attributes such as leadership, self-awareness, goal-setting, determination, and "grit," Temple officials said.
For years, critics have called the SAT an unreliable predictor of college readiness that discriminates against minority students and those from low-income families.
"We cannot ignore the mounting evidence that standardized test scores inject socio-economic bias into the admissions and financial-aid equations," said Hai-Lung Dai, Temple's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
Temple becomes the second Philadelphia-area college in the last week to announce a test-optional policy, as more universities are looking for ways to make college accessible to students who are the first in their families to attend or come from low-income families and minority groups.
Bryn Mawr, a private women's college on the Main Line, said last week that it would make the test optional. St. Joseph's University made the same move last year. Nationally, more than 800 colleges - about 30 percent of schools that grant bachelor's degrees - give students the option of whether to submit SAT and ACT scores.
But at Temple, which is in the heart of North Philadelphia, home to a school district in which most students are minority and live in poverty, the decision indicates a broader commitment.
"I'm excited that Temple is taking this on," said William R. Hite Jr., superintendent of the Philadelphia School District. "We have children who may not do well [on standardized tests], but these children may have designed, planned, developed, and built a hybrid car.
"No one can convince me that the skills and abilities of those children are any less than those who may have had SAT and ACT prep courses" - something many district students cannot afford.
Hite was referring to students at the district's Workshop School, which teaches students to learn through hands-on projects such as building hybrid cars.
Temple officials said they would also work to monitor and nurture through graduation the students who are admitted without SATs, using a $225,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"Temple is an access-oriented institution and it's making a major effort to serve more students," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a critic of the SAT and other standardized tests.
Over the last two decades, Temple has become increasingly competitive. The average combined reading and math SAT score for last year's freshman class was 1129 out of a possible 1600 - 19 points higher than the previous year. That's a marked shift from the mid-1990s, when the average score was in the 980s.
The university has faced criticism as abandoning its commitment to the city and accepting more students from the suburbs who are increasingly white and wealthy.
Many students from Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools are finishing at the top of their class, but have SAT scores in the 800s, putting them at a disadvantage.
"Students were getting discouraged. They were feeling that they didn't have an opportunity to go to Temple," said Gregory Anderson, who became dean of the College of Education a year ago, and served on the committee that made the decision to abandon the SAT requirement. "There's the belief that there's no point in even applying."
Anderson, who is black and whose parents are from South Africa, was first in his family to go to college and struggled with standardized tests.
"I know firsthand how important this is," he said.
The Temple committee that proposed eliminating the SAT requirement emphasized that the university wants to admit only students who have the ability to do well.
"The whole strategy is based on finding students who will succeed but are being disadvantaged because of the test score," said William N. Black, Temple's senior vice provost for enrollment management. "It's that potential we want to develop."
This year, a study released by the National Association of College Admission Counseling found almost no difference in college GPAs and graduation rates between students who submitted SAT scores and those who did not at colleges where scores are optional.
Temple, which began considering the change nearly a year ago, reviewed experiences at other schools, such as DePaul University in Chicago, which made standardized tests optional in 2011.
The nation's largest Catholic university, DePaul has found that students admitted without ACT scores have performed almost as well as the others. There was only a 0.07 percent difference in GPAs, and nearly the same percentage came back for a second year, said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing.
That's despite the fact that the two groups of students came in with widely different ACT scores. The group whose scores were not used for admission had scored at about the 49th percentile nationally, compared to the 83d percentile for the others, Boeckenstedt said.
"We don't believe that proves our argument," he said. "Our research is ongoing. But at this point, we don't have anything that causes us to be concerned."
DePaul requires students who do not submit standardized test scores to answer four essay questions, designed to assess their ability to persist and graduate, Boeckenstedt said. The questions address goal-setting, personal challenges, leadership, and extracurriculars. Temple is still developing its questions, Black said.
Black said he expects about 10 percent of applicants to forgo test scores in the first year, based on experience at other universities. Temple received 27,521 applications last year and will enroll 4,500 freshmen this fall.
Athletes, homeschoolers, and international students not enrolled in a U.S. high school for at least three years still will be required to submit test scores, the university said.
Here are other colleges in the area that have a test-optional policy:
Other Schools in the Area
Muhlenberg College in Allentown and the College of New Jersey in Ewing require scores for some programs.