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Admissions Group Urges Colleges to 'Assume Control' of Debate on Testing

Susan Notes:

Wouldn't it be something if
schools assumed control of the debate on
standardized testing?


The report does encourage more colleges to
consider dropping their test requirement if
they find that they can make appropriate
admissions decisions without the ACT and SAT.
Each college, the report says, should use its
own validity studies to judge whether the tests
have enough predictive value to justify their
use.

It is shameful that our professional
organizations keep their silence, refusing to
issue reports showing that standardized testing
should be greatly reduced in elementary school,
acknowledging that the kindergarten teacher
certainly knows more about her students than is
revealed in a DIBELS test and so, too, is a
fourth grade teacher a more accurate judge than
is McGraw-Hill or Pearson. AND that great harm
is done to students by these standardized
assessments.

by Eric Hoover

With just a few words, William R. Fitzsimmons
could start a revolution. He is, after all,
dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard
University.

Imagine if he announces one day that his office
no longer requires applicants to submit
standardized-test scores. Within weeks
Harvard's competitors go test-optional, too.
Soon less-selective institutions do the same.
College admissions is transformed, and high-
school students everywhere rejoice.

At least that's what happens in the daydream
shared by some testing critics. Reality,
however, looks a lot different. ACT and SAT
exams support a complex ecosystem in which
colleges' needs vary according to size,
mission, and selectivity. Even Harvard cannot
change that.

Still, people listen to what Mr. Fitzsimmons
says. And this week, he plans to say a lot
about tests.

Last year the National Association for College
Admission Counseling, or Nacac, asked Mr.
Fitzsimmons to lead a panel that would examine
testing issues and recommend how colleges might
better use entrance exams. The dean and his
fellow panelists are to present their findings
on Friday at the association's annual
conference, in Seattle.

Nacac gave The Chronicle an early look
at the long-awaited "Report of the Commission
on the Use of Standardized Tests in
Undergraduate Admission," which stops well
short of condemning admissions tests.
Nonetheless, it delivers the association's
strongest statement to date on one of higher
education's most controversial issues. It
affirms that colleges and other interested
parties have overinflated both the real and the
perceived importance of the exams—and proposes
how to let some of that air out.

The report urges colleges to regularly
scrutinize their testing requirements, to stop
using minimum scores for scholarships, and to
ensure that admissions policies account for
inequities among applicants, including access
to test preparation. Moreover, it anticipates a
future when admissions tests better reflect
what students learn in high school.

"We want to get the word out more clearly than
before that tests should not be used in a rigid
way," Mr. Fitzsimmons says. "A couple decades
ago, people associated testing results with so-
called ability. We have come to a clearer
understanding that those scores have more to do
with opportunities."

'Center of Gravity'

Creating the 58-page report was a test itself.
The 21-member panel included admissions deans
from an array of institutions, such as Central
Lakes College, in Minnesota; Georgetown
University; and the University of Connecticut.

"The challenge was to find a center of
gravity," says David A. Hawkins, Nacac's
director of public policy and research. "We
were looking to the collective wisdom of
colleges, which have their own proprietary
interests and are not always consistent."

High-school counselors, independent
consultants, and education-policy experts
rounded out the panel, which met four times and
communicated frequently via e-mail. Mr. Hawkins
had the unenviable task of synthesizing more
than 20 hours of notes with the panelists'
written contributions.

The commission crafted recommendations that
echoed the association's big-tent spirit. "We
were realistic," says Mr. Hawkins. "We weren't
going to tell people to abolish tests or that
they were the greatest thing since sliced
bread."

The report does encourage more colleges to
consider dropping their test requirement if
they find that they can make appropriate
admissions decisions without the ACT and SAT.

Each college, the report says, should use its
own validity studies to judge whether the tests
have enough predictive value to justify their
use. Admissions offices should not rely only on
national data compiled by testing companies—or
on tradition.

The panel encourages Nacac to become an
"unaffiliated clearinghouse" of testing
information. It recommends that the association
create a program to train admissions officials
in the ethics and standards of testing. It also
asks Nacac to create a way for colleges to
share testing research, and to annually publish
sample validity studies of the ACT and SAT.

Judgments of the value of such statistics,
however, often divided the committee. All
members agreed that test scores reliably
predict freshman-year grades, but some said
that did not justify requiring the tests.

Steven T. Syverson urged his fellow panelists
to reach a broader definition of success in
college. "We need to start paying better
attention to our language," says Mr. Syverson,
vice president for enrollment at Lawrence
University, in Wisconsin, which does not
require standardized-test scores. "Success
isn't a grade-point average. I've got lots of
students who get C's but who have a fabulous
college experience. They develop social skills
and leadership skills. Being a good citizen is
a successful outcome."

Randall C. Deike agrees. Even so, he brought a
more practical view of tests to the discussion.

Vice president for enrollment at Case Western
Reserve University, Mr. Deike holds a Ph.D. in
educational psychology. He believes that the
ACT and SAT are solid tests that help
admissions officials do their jobs, especially
at large universities with waves of applicants.
He repeatedly told the commission not to
discount the statistical significance of the
exams.

"Why," he recalls asking, "would you throw away
good information?"

Mr. Fitzsimmons, the chairman, dubbed Mr. Deike
"the canary in the coal mine." When panelists
proposed language that struck him as too
critical of tests, he would speak up and try to
steer them to more-inclusive recommendations.

In the spirit of collaboration, Mr. Deike ended
up writing a key passage in the report that
encourages more colleges to at least explore
the possibility of going test-optional. But he
remains unconvinced that such a move is
advisable for many. "Too often standardized
testing is condemned," he says, "when it's
really test misuse that's at issue."

Beyond Numbers

The report takes gentle swipes at several third
parties for "possible misuses" of test scores.
It urges the National Merit Scholarship
Corporation to stop using minimum PSAT scores
as a requirement for its awards. It questions
why the College Board "appears to condone" that
practice. The report also criticizes the use of
test scores in U.S. News & World Report's
college rankings, as well as in college-bond
ratings.

The booming test-preparation industry prompted
a vigorous debate among panelists. Some
participants say they had hoped that the report
would dismiss test prep's value to students.
Others, however, argued that the issue looms
too large in students' lives to reduce to a
short statement. They wanted the report to
confront the complexity of what they see: that
test prep benefits some applicants but not all.

"I'm not against preparing for tests, but
there's now an obsessive compulsion to get the
best scores you can," says Marybeth Kravets, a
counselor at Deerfield High School, a public
school in Illinois. "Therein lies the inequity—
those who can afford it can better prepare
themselves."

The commission concluded that while test prep
is inevitable, its effects remain too
mysterious. Could it add 30 points to a
student's SAT score, or 100? What distinguishes
good prep from bad?

Citing a dearth of independent research, the
commission called for further study of the
effects of coaching. Nacac has already
commissioned a white paper on the topic.

Meanwhile, the report said colleges "have a
unique responsibility to mitigate the
inequitable effects of test preparation."
Admissions staffs that compile applicants'
grades and test scores into an "academic index"
number, the report says, should remain flexible
enough to consider those effects.

Notably, the report does not offer
recommendations to the largest constituency of
all—test takers. Students and parents, of
course, have not been passive participants in
the testing frenzy. Like politics, the ACT and
SAT are things that Americans love to hate.

But in a world where grades are final, tests
are seductive because they offer an apparent
second (or third or fourth) chance to improve.
That speaks to something larger than admissions
policies.

"If you did away with the current tests,
something would replace them," says Mr. Deike.
"As human beings and as a society, we want to
quantify everything."

'A Contextual Animal'

Among its recommendations, the panel also poses
a philosophical challenge. Colleges, it says,
must "assume control of the conversation" about
tests.

Jeff Rickey believes colleges have relinquished
that control to several players—test companies,
test-preparation services, and the media. Like
other panelists, he insists that test scores
are not the ultimate determinants of admissions
outcomes. "There's a lot of anxiety that comes
from mischaracterizations of the importance of
admissions testing," says Mr. Rickey, dean of
admissions and financial aid at Earlham
College, in Indiana. "We have, as a profession,
neglected stewardship of this conversation."

When Mr. Rickey meets with parents and
students, he gives them a number—12.5 percent.
That's how much an applicant's ACT or SAT score
counts in Earlham's overall evaluation. Grades
and the rigor of courses, the dean tells
applicants, count for much more.

Transparency was one theme Mr. Rickey hoped the
commission would embrace. In various places, it
did. The report urges colleges "to think and
communicate clearly, independently, and
progressively" about how they use tests.

The trick, of course, is that not all colleges
can quantify, or succinctly describe, the role
that tests play in admissions. Evaluations may
differ in significant ways.

"A test score is a contextual animal, not a
line in the sand," says Philip A. Ballinger,
director of admissions at the University of
Washington, which replaced its academic index
with an individualized review process in 2005.

Perhaps the greatest challenge the panel faced
was nuance. Although testing is a high-voltage
debate, few admissions officials believe that
tests are entirely good or bad.

Mr. Ballinger exemplifies that ambiguity. Known
as one of the most thoughtful practitioners in
his field, he has described admissions tests,
which disproportionately benefit wealthier
applicants, as "an exclusionary engine." Yet he
also believes they can help colleges serve
their students.

Like many universities, Washington uses test
scores to place students in courses and to
connect them to tutoring. A first-generation
student who earned A's and B's in her high-
school literature classes, Mr. Ballinger says,
may be well prepared for college. But a low
score on the SAT's critical-reading section
might indicate that she needs some extra help.

"I hoped we could recognize that test scores
are not just a pinpoint of data but a symbolic
tool, a tool of communication, a political
tool, a public-relations tool," Mr. Ballinger
says. "I think we've done that."

A Future Course?

Perhaps the last thing the sagging shelves of
academe need is another report. Although
comprehensive, the commission's report is not
groundbreaking. It echoes previous findings,
including several conclusions in "Myths &
Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate
Admissions," a 1999 report by the National
Research Council.

Yet Susan K. Tree is eager to see Nacac's new
report, which she believes will make a long-
overdue statement. Ms. Tree is director of
college counseling at Westtown High School, a
private school in Pennsylvania. She served as
chairwoman of a previous Nacac commission on
standardized tests, which issued a report in
1995. Her research convinced her that many
admissions professionals knew too little about
tests, such as what they do and do not measure.
She suspects that is still the case on many
campuses.

Over the years, Ms. Tree has asked why Harvard
and other elite institutions, with more than
enough high-scoring applicants, cling to the
ACT and SAT. "The colleges that could best
afford to do away with them," she says, "are
obsessed with them."

In Harvard's admissions office, it rains
valedictorians. Last year the middle 50 percent
of its freshmen scored between 1400 and 1590
(out of a possible 1600) on the SAT's
mathematics and critical-reading sections. On
average, the nation's four-year colleges accept
nearly 70 percent of their applicants. This
spring Harvard accepted 7 percent.

Such numbers represent what Mr. Fitzsimmons,
the Harvard dean, has called "the lunatic
fringe," where there is little variance among
the scores of competitive applicants.

Even so, he says, standardized-test scores help
his staff evaluate students' transcripts. For
one thing, they help ease concerns about grade
inflation. "We want to give people as many
opportunities as possible to show what they can
do, particularly when we don't know everything
about their high schools," he says.

Over the past year, Mr. Fitzsimmons has
scribbled note after note to himself about
testing. Many linear feet of folders—full of
clippings, studies, and data—have piled up in
his office. Fellow panelists say that the dean
strove to put his Harvard hat aside, that he
wanted the report to speak forcefully to all of
higher education.

Mr. Fitzsimmons is not exactly neutral on
tests, though. Unlike most colleges, Harvard
requires a battery of exams: the ACT or SAT,
and three College Board Subject Tests.

The latter better predict students' performance
at Harvard than the ACT and SAT do. Mr.
Fitzsimmons believes the Subject Tests also
send a healthy signal to students. "The message
is that students succeed by studying the
material in their courses," he says, "not by
spending an enormous amount of time trying to
prepare for the ACT and SAT."

The commission's report concludes with an
endorsement of achievement tests, which some
panelists hope will one day supplant the ACT
and SAT. By using state achievement tests, the
College Board's Subject Tests, or International
Baccalaureate exams, the report says, "colleges
would create a powerful incentive for American
high schools to improve their curricula and
their teaching. They would lose little or none
of the information they need to make good
choices about entering classes."

Nicholas Lemann draws a similar conclusion in
his book The Big Test: The Secret History of
the American Meritocracy, which traces the
history of the SAT (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
1999). "In a perfect world, high-school
curriculum standards would link up with
college-admissions placement decisions," says
Mr. Lemann, dean of Columbia University's
journalism school and a member of Nacac's
testing commission. "There needs to be a shift
in tone from aptitude to achievement."

That idea contradicts the thinking of the late
James Bryant Conant, who did much to popularize
the SAT in the mid-20th century. He believed
that traditional subject-based exams ill served
students who lacked the means to attend
boarding schools. He endorsed the SAT—which at
the time was viewed as a pure measure of
intelligence—as a way to level the field for
applicants.

"Subject-matter examinations were of slight
value," Mr. Conant wrote in My Several Lives:
Memoirs of a Social Inventor (Harper & Row,
1970). "The aptitude, not the schooling, was
what counted."

What gave him the authority to decide what
counted? For one thing, he spent 20 years as
president of Harvard.

— Eric Hoover
Chronicle of Higher Education


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