True Grit: Why Temple Is Turning Away From the SAT

Vice provost William Black explains the university's alternative approach to admissions.

William N. Black.

William N. Black.

Temple University is going to take the road less traveled.

The university announced last month it will become the first major research university in the Northeast to make SAT scores optional for admission: Instead students can opt to take a short, four-question essay quiz testing the students on “grit factors” identified by Penn’s Angela Duckworth to see if they have the mettle to attend college. About 10 percent of applicants are expected to take the option.

Students who get into Temple via this route will be nurtured by the university, which has a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to mentor them through their four-year stay. “Our overall goal here is to understand what makes students successful in high school and how can we continue to promote that success in college,” said William Black, Temple’s senior vice provost of enrollment management.

Black talked to Philly Mag about why SAT scores might not be great predictors of a student’s college performance, how to make the new system fair, and how post-graduate schools might be affected.

Temple announced that it will not require admissions tests in order to be admitted to the university. How is this system gonna work?

We call it “the Temple option” and that students will have the option, when they are filling out their application, to either submit their test scores or not submit their test scores.

If they choose not to submit their test scores, we will then prompt them to visit what we call the “TU portal.” They will have access to four short-answer, self -reflective questions. And we mean short-answer, I think we mean that we’re asking them to complete these answers within 100 to 150 words. Then those responses will be scored, and we will convert those into a score that will then be applied to our overall admission deliberations.

We are very interested in understanding why students who have achieved strong academic records in high school: How did they do that? And how can we identify those factors, and use them not only in an admission decisions, but also how do we use them to add value to our intervention and retention strategies over the course of the four years of the student’s career with us?

Some of the coverage I saw suggested that it might be particularly good for luring Philadelphia students (to Temple).

We’ve known that the high school GPA is the best indicator of success, certainly at Temple, but as you’re probably aware, national research shows that this is consistent across the country. So the first and most primary important item in a student’s application is their high school record. The test scores have traditionally been used to try to balance a particular student’s application against another student from somewhere else, whether or not it’s from Philadelphia or not.

What we have found in our research, and what the national research shows, is that the SAT score is marginally predictive, and if a student has a strong high school record, and it doesn’t matter which high school they come from, they are very likely to have a similar if not better GPA in college. And we have, when we looked into our research, found that in fact students, it didn’t matter if they came from Philadelphia or elsewhere, if they had a very strong high school record — and we’re talking somewhere probably break-even point maybe 3.25 but usually it’s closer to 3.5 and above — then they’re going to achieve at Temple a very similar college GPA. Whereas a student who has a mediocre high school record and has scored well on standardized tests, they still have a mediocre college GPA.

Given that you say that the SAT is a marginal predictor of success, why not just drop the SAT and the standardized tests entirely?

Well, you know, I don’t think that that’s completely out of the question going down the road. We’ve just started this, and I think we’re really excited about the prospects, but there’s a lot of additional research that I think we and other universities who are contemplating a non-cognitive approach need to do to validate and continue to make sure. The last thing we want to do is admit a student into a program that they cannot be successful in.

A lot of people, a lot of students believe that their best foot forward is to submit test scores. Others believe that the test score and what will happen on a Saturday morning does not accurately or fully reflect their abilities and strengths as a student and their potential. And that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to understand what that potential is and how to nurture it in their years with us, from freshman to senior year.

This move comes as the Supreme Court is increasingly putting restrictions on affirmative action, certainly with regard to universities and their admissions policies. Could this be a tool for other universities to perhaps cultivate a diverse incoming class without resorting to specific affirmative action tools?

It’s a really good question. That was not our motivation. We already are proud of our diversity.

There’s a wonderful piece by William Hiss called Defining Promise which studied 33 different schools and colleges, 123,000 students who were admitted without test scores, and the conclusion there is the students who exercise the test option tend to be first generation, tend to be Pell eligible, tend to be urban. So yes, schools and universities could use this as a way to attract talented students from these populations. … As I say, that was not our motivation here.

You talked about scoring the results of the Temple option, and I’m curious: How do you go about ensuring that those short essay answers end up being fairly and consistently judged so that it’s not just kind of a coin flip?

It’s a good question. We’ve been researching this for more than a year, and since about February we’ve worked with a faculty committee comprised of researchers who have looked at the issue of motivational and developmental factors in education and learning. They worked with us in developing these four questions, and they’re specially designed to give us insight into the student’s various dimensions and to their potential for success.

Each of these students will be answering, as I said before, these four short-answer questions. The faculty has developed the scoring rubrics and they will also be training our readers, and as we go through this first year, we will be continually monitoring the scores that the readers give to the students. And if there are discrepancies between Reader One and Reader Two — each set of essays will be read by two readers — and if there is a discrepancy between those two readers, a major discrepancy, then we will pull out that student’s essays and they will be evaluated a third time.

Do you think this is a trend that will eventually reach into, say, post-graduate studies? Somebody pointed out that the MCAT and the LSAT and some of these things are very important for doing graduate studies for professional schools. Are those things that are going to go away then someday?

I don’t know. I do know, and I’ve seen, where there’s been some interest, particularly in the LSATs. It so happens that our school of dentistry here had some preliminary conversations with Angela Duckworth over at Penn. There are no plans that I know of to do anything like this for graduate school; I think there is a natural inclination to say that if the SAT could be in question or if there were alternatives to the SAT or ACT and standardized test score, then maybe it’s worth doing the research and deciding whether or not they’re might be another way to identify students who are particularly well-suited for a professional degree.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

Previously: Q&A with MacArthur Genius Award Winner Angela Duckworth