When the dean of the Darden School of Business was a senior in high school, he did what everyone who wanted to go to college has to do: He sat for the SAT exam. Scott Beardsley remembers it well. It was the start of the winter in Anchorage, Alaska, and he got through the math part of the exam and then fell sound asleep. “I drooled on the verbal answer sheet,” he recalls. “I got a very bad score on the English section because it was all blank. And I was one of the top students in the school. I often thought should your whole life be linked to a standardized test? In my case, it wasn’t.”
Beardsley would ultimately go onto Tufts University, join McKinsey & Co. where over a 26-year career he would rise to the status of senior partner at a firm that puts nearly all of its focus on brainpower. So when he finally became dean of a business school in 2015, it did not take him long to come to the conclusion that GMAT and GRE scores were being over-indexed by most MBA programs. In fact, a survey by Poets&Quants of MBA admission consultants found that the single most important metric in MBA admissions is the three-and-one-half-hour standardized test, weighted more heavily in their opinion than the four years of undergraduate work by a candidate.
Critics maintain that the overreliance on standardized test scores in MBA admission decisions– partly a result of their use in U.S. News rankings–puts at a disadvantage students from lower-income backgrounds, first-generation college applicants, and some international applicants who have learned English as a second language. They also claim it is blatantly unfair. At many schools, moreover, admission officials are literally buying high GMAT candidates, offering them the lion’s share of scholarship funds to bump up a class average for ranking purposes. So more financial support is going to people who may have less a need for it, merely because they have 700-plus scores.
‘IF YOU GOOGLE STANDARDIZED TESTS AND RACISM, IT IS VERY WELL DOCUMENTED’
Beardsley points out that prospective students from low-income families are less able to pay for prep classes or tutors who can cost up to $500 an hour or can take time off from work to study for the exam. “A friend jokes that our job is giving advantage to people who already have every advantage,” says Dan Edmonds, a master tutor at Noodle Pros, who charges $500 an hour for his services. “And there is a certain truth to that. I’ve made peace with that but as the child of lefty professors who is himself pretty left of center, it does bug me at times.”
Whether one can afford one-on-one tutoring with Edmonds or his rivals is just one way the test is unfair. Students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, born to uneducated parents, tend to score lower regardless of whether they are tutored or not. “If you look at the data for the SAT and ACT by ethnic group, it is absolutely shocking,” he says. “It shows that underrepresented minorities score between one to two standard deviations below the average. If you Google standardized tests and racism, it is very well documented. I don’t want to reward only people who spend tons of money or have tons of time studying for standardized tests. We appreciate the people who have gone through all those hoops as well. But there are many indicators of success. If you graduated with the highest honors in engineering from Carnegie Mellon, I don’t need a GMAT to tell me you can do the math in an MBA program.”
So this coming admissions cycle, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business is making the GMAT and the GRE test-optional. Darden made the announcement in early June. In less than a month, well before the first application deadline of Sept. 2, some 72 candidates submitted applications with requests to waive the tests. “The evidence is so compelling that we can waive the standardized test,” says Darden admissions chief Dawna Clarke, who admitted more than 50 MBA applicants last year without a GMAT or GRE when the school, among several other elite MBA programs, added more flexibility to its admissions procedures when test centers closed due to the pandemic.
MORE THAN HALF OF ALL FOUR-YEAR COLLEGES IN THE U.S. ARE NOW TEST-OPTIONAL
Darden’s decision to make the GMAT and GRE test-optional reawakens an age-old debate about both the usefulness and the fairness of standardized testing. This year, in fact, the Wisconsin School of Business, Rutgers Business School, and Northeastern University are among several B-schools that have gone test-optional. And when the outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring shut down test centers, a number of schools, including Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and The University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business, began offering test waivers for applicants directly affected by the pandemic.
Truth is, many of the top business schools have been inching toward test-optional admission policies mainly in their Executive MBA, evening MBA and online MBA programs. Only this week, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School joined the bandwagon, making GMAT and GRE scores optional for applicants to both its evening MBA and Executive MBA programs, saying they are “unnecessary barriers” for working professionals.
Most applicants to elite MBA programs find the admissions process opaque and random. It is, after all, a highly subjective process to evaluate large numbers of qualified candidates for relatively few classroom seats. When Julie R. Posselt, an associate professor of higher education in USC’s School of Education, delved into the workings of admissions committees for her 2016 book, Inside Graduate Admissions, she found a number of issues that impacted the diversity of the admitted pool. Posselt discovered that graduate admissions put undue focus on easily observable qualities such as standardized test scores, undergraduate grades, and the prestige of a person’s alma mater. That emphasis systematically disadvantages women, racial minorities, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Admission officials, she found, often justify largely subjective judgments by the apparent objectivity of test scores and GPAs that were difficult to contest and often concealed biased misguided perceptions. Her conclusion: Where admission officials draw the line between admitted and rejected candidates is “as much a reflection of who is doing the evaluating as much as who is evaluated.”
Those underlying issues have prompted hundreds of undergraduate institutions to adopt test-optional admissions policies. In fact, more than half of all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission, including Brown, CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, Virginia, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale. In May, the University of California Board of Regents voted 23-0 to no longer require applicants to such schools as UC-Berkeley and UCLA to submit an SAT or ACT score for admission.
IF BERKELEY & HARVARD CAN MAKE THE SAT OPTIONAL, WHY CAN’T B-SCHOOLS MAKE THE GMAT OPTIONAL?
It is a movement, clearly accelerated by the pandemic, that is being watched closely by many business school deans and MBA admission officials. After all, graduate schools have access to far more information to evaluate applicants than undergraduate admissions officers. “If three-and-one-half years of high school is more than sufficient to replace a test score at the undergraduate level, graduate schools need test scores even less,” says Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “They have the work experience to look at and fewer feeder schools to evaluate. There are 30,000 high schools in the U.S. but only 2,300 undergraduate colleges that could possibly feed a graduate school or business school. That makes it easier for admission committees to follow and know about the quality of an undergraduate program.”
At a recent MBA Summit panel discussion, Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Columbia Business School Michael Robinson acknowledged that he was among those eager to find out what the best undergraduate schools will discover in going test-options. More schools are “deemphasizing the importance of standardized testing in the context of the admissions process,” he says. “I’m actually watching that with lots of curiosity, and then just add one more data point. I’ve led the recruiting efforts in Africa for over a decade at Columbia. There are some very, very big cities. So, let’s say Lagos, Nigeria, that has over 20 million people. There’s one test center. There’s very little in the way of test prep resources and so on, so a 700 in Lagos is not the same thing as a 700 in New York City, just in terms of access to resources, but the way we’re kind of judging (the candidate, it) is the same. So, for us in admissions, it’s not that we want to basically admit people with the highest test average. It’s more about whether this person can succeed academically in that class. There are ways to get the right answer to that question without a GRE or GMAT or executive assessment. So I’m really curious to see what’s happening there. We’ll see what that looks like.”
Beardsley agrees. “We are in the middle of an experiment and I have watched this very carefully in the undergraduate sphere,” he adds. “There are hundreds and hundreds of colleges and universities that now have text flexibility. That list (of test-optional schools has been growing and growing and growing over the years. One of the first that did it was Bowdoin College which I view to be one of the most outstanding undergraduate institutions in the country that made the SAT optional. Now Berkeley, UVA, and Harvard have made standardized tests optional. So what about business school? Why can’t we?”