An Open Letter to College Presidents

I recently wrote a version of this letter to the president of my alma mater and former employer, where I served for eight years in the admission office. I am posting it here in the hopes that visitors will feel free to use and adapt it to send to other college and university presidents as a way of getting the discussion of testing off the ground. Really, as much as we talk about admission directors, it it presidents, provosts, and trustees who set college policy, so we need to reach them and hope they will consider looking beyond their own interests to the national good. Again, I give permission for anyone to use or adapt this letter for appropriate communications with college and university presidents, trustees, and other educational leaders.

Dear Mr. President:

I am interested in continuing the discussion about standardized testing and its relation not only to college admission but also to American education. I am pleased to say that the Bates report released at a panel I put together at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s conference almost two weeks ago was a very powerful piece that documents the histories of over 7,000 Bates students, not only at the point of admission but also during and after their Bates careers. I also believe that the Mellon study at Mt. Holyoke will reveal similar results, although without the longitudinal power.

I want to challenge you on this issue not only because you are in a position to accept a challenge, but also and especially because you call for your college to be an educational leader. My question to you is: Is it to be a leader simply in and for itself or a true leader for American education? I have been on just about every side of the college admission process as a high school teacher, admission officer, consultant for a firm that did market research and created materials for colleges and universities, and now as a college counselor. In the process, I’ve seen just about everything that can be done to high school students in the name of college admission and I think none is more significant than what happens as standardized testing comes into the picture. I think colleges have short-sightedly put their own interests ahead of the greater good in this area.

The many biases of the tests and its history have been well covered; those are not the issues I’m concerned about although I believe they’re important. What does concern me is the vast amount of educational real estate that has been lost over the years to worrying about and preparing for the tests. No matter what colleges say, no one believes that tests aren’t as important as actual academic achievement. I’ve done enough college nights as a college representative and a counselor to know that no matter how much information we give out, the vast majority of questions we get from parents and students is about standardized testing. It’s discouraging to talk about the importance of doing well in high school classes yet hear only “Can I get into your school if I have a 1350?” “What about taking a test prep course?”

I also know from my experience in the admission office that there is nothing sacrosanct about test scores. They are lionized until they become inconvenient, and then they are suddenly irrelevant or not truly revealing of a student’s talent or ability. My question was always, “Well, how can that be?” Either they tell us something or they don’t. But of course we know that perfectly wonderful students have been admitted to and done well at the college and beyond without the benefit of high test scores. (And high scorers have turned out to be duds.) And we know from the 20-year Bates study that the tests actually do very little to distinguish successful from unsuccessful students or do anything more than reveal what’s already known through other methods. So what is the real utility of the tests?

Usually, that question is interpreted to mean, What is the real utility of the tests to the college? Most colleges say that they’re another method of measurement, more information, a “scientific” support of their own decisions, or, when pressed, that they help admission officers compare high schools around the country (something the tests were not designed to do and, if they’re measuring something innate, irrelevant). Colleges mostly see the tests strictly through their own lenses, feeling that as long as they’re useful somehow they’re all right. (I would guarantee you, though, that not two in ten admission people have ever been trained to understand testing as actual testers might.)

The question that really should be being asked is, What is testing doing to American education? The answer, in my estimation, is worse than nothing; it is actually harming education at every level by attaching an importance to magical numbers that outweighs the reality of schooling. With my privileged students, it eats away time, effort, and money that could be better used to study something real; for the underserved students that I’ve volunteered with over the years, it represents a hurdle that is almost impossible to overcome no matter how bright they may actually be.

With underserved students, the problem isn’t that they aren’t taught about the tests (although that very often is the case), it’s because they ARE being taught about them, and what happens, as has been reported in the Chicago Tribune, at least, is that whole semesters of academic subjects such as history and science are sacrificed to prepare for them. I’m thinking of state and No Child Left Behind testing now but the same principle applies to SAT and ACT testing: huge chunks of real live learning are being sacrificed at every level for mechanistic, inanely formatted ritualized testing. At our regional conference last year I asked the Director of Admission at the University of Illinois if he’d discussed how requiring the new SAT with writing would affect the teaching of writing in high schools. His response? “Why would we talk about that?” This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of higher education and should not be allowed to stand.

Schools that go out of their way to be creative with their students are brought to task if test scores aren’t up to par; schools in poor districts may produce exceptional students who can’t score beans on the test because they don’t have the resources to practice for them. Colleges find themselves saying they want original, creative thinkers who take chances and enjoy the process of education yet in the final analysis penalize those students if they don’t do well on tests that I used to advise my students not to think too hard about.

It’s ironic that at a time when secondary schools are trying to become more sensitized to learning differences, to cultural and linguistic challenges, and to other student uniquenesses, we also seem to have become more addicted to standardized testing, something that would seem to be anathema to genuine educational institutions. Part of this situation arises from rankings and the incredible market pressures on colleges, where numbers are convenient shorthand for quality. (I’ve always thought it interesting and kind of funny how colleges take credit for attracting smart freshmen, when they haven’t really done anything with them yet.)

Several schools, including Pitzer and Sarah Lawrence, have recently gone to test-optional (the former) or no test-required admissions because they have come to realize that standardized testing doesn’t fit with their stated mission. This is admirable but it also fits only the narrow lens of the colleges. I would hope that at some point colleges would look beyond their own narrow interests and take a hard look at what testing is doing to American education itself.

My idea of your college’s taking a leadership position in American education, rather than simply gloating about its status, would be to turn a light on how testing is really affecting it. I would love to see leading higher education institutions truly question how standardized testing is affecting American education by doing an independent study of testing, looking backwards at how it affects the intellectual lives of the students they want to attract and then decide what to do about it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it: Most of my evidence, although anecdotal, has been gathered over many years from many different sources. Most of the positive reports about testing come from the College Board itself, which has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in maintaining the testing addiction and which has so dominated college admission over the years that people repeat its assertions as fact. This is much like a drug company testing its own drug and announcing how wonderful it is without independent research. Would you take that drug? (Incidentally, I asked a College Board researcher who was praising their own research on the new SAT if that research had been verified by any independent agency; after a long pause, he said, “No.”)

Even if the tests were “perfect,” whatever that would mean, we still have to question how and why they would negate four years of hard work on a student’s part or how they could possibly reveal anything that couldn’t already be found in an application. (As I mentioned the other night, SAT scores correlate with zip codes at least as well as they do with GPAs.) Testing is a case where the tail has come to wag the dog, where it no longer is merely an “observer” of a student’s “aptitude” but is an active participant that undermines the thing it purports to measure. I often liken testing to building hotels on Waikiki: It destroys the thing it supposedly values.

Again, I believe colleges and universities need to look beyond their own parochial interests to find out for themselves whether the educational costs of testing are worth the small returns they bring. If Amherst and colleges like it are truly committed to educational development and opportunity, and if they are truly committed to American education as a whole and not just to the great kids they can skim off the top of the heap, it seems only fitting that they look seriously into how standardized testing distorts the very educational process they say they value.

This sort of study can’t be taken up at an admission office level; it has to be taken up at the policy-making level, with presidents, provosts, and Boards of Trustees, most of whom, I believe, have uncritically accepted testing without looking at the harm it causes to education overall. I would hope that your institution could at least raise the question in a way that inspires serious national discussion. There have been reports recently that college bond ratings are tied to SATs and that employers have begun to ask for job applicants’ test scores. Surely this sort of cradle-to-grave sorting was never meant to be. Even the test’s founder, Charles Brigham, was worried about what might happen. In 1926 he wrote, “If the unhappy day ever comes when teachers point their students towards these newer examinations, then we may look for the inevitable distortion of education in terms of tests.” Testing is not educating; I hope you can provide true leadership by helping to examine the testing question in detail independently of the College Board. American colleges and universities need to take a clear look at testing if they really want to live up to their ideals and not just bring in the next brilliant class of testers.

Yours truly,

Willard M. Dix

College Counselor

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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