Testing’s Problems and Some Suggestions

Eleven Reasons to Abandon Standardized Testing in College Admission

Long usage and a barnacle-like attachment to the culture have given standardized testing a wholly unjustified aura of permanence and inevitability. But it’s hard to say why that should be, especially in light of the many studies that show its essential irrelevance not only to college admission, but, more important, to education. With a pedigree that connects it to the justly discredited eugenics movement and to a conceptual equivalent of racial and economic profiling, standardized testing continues to exert an influence well beyond its actual utility. One has to wonder why we continue to place such faith in something so demonstrably anti-intellectual, insidiously prejudicial, and solidly banal. Herewith, eleven reasons to scrape it off the bottom of the ship:

1. It doesn’t really measure anything. An early justification for the test was that it “scientifically” measured a student’s “aptitude,” a mysterious innate quality (like IQ) that was either there or not. Even the College Board now admits that this is not the case, so we are left wondering what, in fact, the test measures. The “A” in SAT is now a mysterious cipher. Since the tests are so coachable and so intimately related to the test-taker’s socio-economic background, they don’t do much more than measure those indicators.

2. The test has become an end in itself. No matter what you think of the test, it does not dispassionately observe anything, much less anything educational. Students, teachers, and politicians see it as evidence of educational “quality” yet because of the vast amount of time and energy used to prepare for it, pushing out time for actual reading, writing and math, for example, it now mostly measures itself. What value it might have is further vitiated by the extreme anxiety it causes and the numerous ways it can be subverted, conditions that any freshman psychology major knows can invalidate a test’s results. Even if we were to grant the test’s legitimacy, few people who use them extensively are trained to do so, knowing only that “high score=good, low score=bad.”

3. Its form and use follow market, not educational, principles. The addition of a writing section on the SAT I in response to Richard Atkinson’s threat to abandon the test in California was a commercial not an educational decision, since the loss of its major customer would have devastated the College Board. Quickly changing the test to accommodate “customers” (who are not students but states, colleges, and universities) clearly undermines the College Board’s stated commitment to educational excellence. Real educational change demands extensive study, not quick fixes. In reality, the College Board’s most important mission is collecting demographic data on students so colleges and universities can use it in their marketing.

4. Coachability makes the scores meaningless. Even the College Board, after years of denying it, now not only admits the tests’ coachability but also profits handsomely from selling products designed to undermine these tests, sort of like a crooked mechanic’s “repairing” your car and then offering to “fix” it when the little hole he drilled in the muffler starts acting up. Disparities in income and access to information guarantee that those who can afford it can improve their scores while those who can’t are stuck with what they’ve got. A high score in Evanston, Illinois may not mean much more than a mediocre score in Trenton, New Jersey.

5. It’s useful until it’s not. Admission offices lionize high scores but ignore them when it’s convenient or necessary, such as when “special interest” admits (legacies, athletes, minority students, for example) are concerned. Those “exceptions,” who may in fact be fine additions to the college community in their own right, are then stigmatized.

6. It’s redundant. The College Board claims that the test predicts success freshman year, but high school GPA has been shown to be just as good if not better in predictive value. Given the cost of taking the test, buying lists, and so on, not to mention the psychic and educational costs, one should expect more bang for the buck. Why add to the already baroque college admission process something that merely repeats what the admission office already can find out from a student’s record? When confronted, college admission officers tend to say, somewhat disingenuously but firmly, that the test is only a “small part” of the admission process, making it not only redundant but inconsequential.

7. It’s a crutch. Having something that looks like a hard number, something scientific and quantifiable, even if that thing is inexplicable, is a great relief for admission offices who have to justify rejecting many applicants or report to trustees and U.S. News. Yet a score can short-circuit discussion in a way that prevents real consideration of the applicant’s file: How many times has an admission officer sighed, “Andrea is exactly what we’re looking for but her scores are a little low.” It also encourages laziness because a low scoring student, possibly difficult to categorize, can be dismissed more easily.

8. It doesn’t really benchmark high school quality. Many admission people, when backed into a corner, contend that at least the test allows them to compare high schools across the country, an important factor when considering that school quality, grading systems, and standards vary so greatly. But the high schools themselves aren’t being tested, it’s the individuals. If scores do measure something innate, then high school quality doesn’t actually matter; if they don’t, we’re back to looking at economic realities. The argument further ignores the fact that most experienced professionals already know the quality of a wide variety of high schools, much of which is based on economic realities, not test scores.

9. Its prominence warps the educational process. Although colleges insist that the test is only “one small part” of the admission process, the public perceives it differently. Privileged and non-privileged students spend vast amounts of time and money trying to beat the tests instead of focusing on their homework, reading, and important extracurricular activities. All students learn is that the tests are what matters. As a result, the tests help ruin the very thing, studenthood, colleges claim to value. Although colleges say they want “independent thinkers” (anathema to standardized test makers) the message that reaches the public is that they want students who can ace the test. By spending more time on the tests than they should, students end up missing out on the genuine and valuable pleasures of education, arriving at college over-tested, overstressed, and unprepared for the real challenges of lively classrooms, careful thought, and open-ended discussions. Teachers, forced to take testing into account, dumb down their curricula and end up “teaching to the test.” Parents and politicians, still thinking that the tests are meaningful, ask for more test preparation, further diluting the educational process and reinforcing the idea that education is about tests not thought.

10. The test rewards superficial and irrelevant characteristics. The alacrity with which the College Board moved to “improve” the SAT only underscores the fact that whatever is being tested is exceedingly shallow. It has been demonstrated, for example, that one can do well on the reading comprehension section without having read the passages provided. Analogies, supposedly a crucial part of the test, have been easily eliminated. The ability to sit in a room for a limited amount of time and fill in ovals may be good for pieceworkers and telemarketers but is not something valued in college. Why, then, subject hundreds of thousands of high schools students to it?

11. It perpetuates racial and class divisions. Numerous studies have shown that success on the SAT merely confirms the class and income levels of the test-takers, information readily available in the application itself. As a result it seldom helps colleges identify bright minority students from underserved schools; in fact it probably discourages those students, whose scores are often lower than those of wealthy whites, from applying. While colleges admirably promote diversity through other means, a slavish devotion to high test scores means that the schools must twist and turn to accept excellent but low-scoring students, thereby making it more difficult to choose a truly diverse class.

There’s always some fear involved in abandoning what one has done for years, but it can be done. Nearly 400 colleges and universities in this country don’t use the SAT or make it optional, and they seem to be doing very well. What’s more nerve-wracking for colleges now is that a high score range can mean crucial points in the (meaningless) college ranking game. But this, of course, has nothing to do with education and everything to do with marketing. In thrall to a business rather than an educational model of college admission, admission “success” rises and falls on the basis of the statistics reported for an incoming class. The number of applicants is expected to rise each year so the quality, often measured by test scores, can be raised. If one questions the validity of test scores, this premise falls apart, yet an admission dean who takes a chance on genuinely original students at the expense of high SATs risks his or her job.

What can colleges and universities do in lieu of using standardized tests? Since the overall effect is so small anyway, they can do what they’ve done all along, just without the score reports. If colleges fear the lack of standardized testing information they might want to think about the following alternatives that can make the process more rewarding for everyone. Many of them have already been adopted by schools with great success:

1. Ask every applicant for a graded paper signed by the teacher.

2. Adopt a portfolio-based approach to applications: Ask students to submit original schoolwork and/or other appropriate evidence of activity for evaluation.

3. Hire and train enough staff to read every application carefully, instead of giving them cursory glances and relying on the shorthand of testing.

4. Use “green deans” (fresh graduates) for travel and outreach, but leave folder reading to professional admission officers who have experience making informed judgments about individuals.

5. Include faculty members on admission committees. Where possible, have them read folders of students interested in their fields. Consider that their academic expertise may be useful in predicting a student’s success.

6. Stop searching for quantity and focus on the quality of the applications. Taking a “more applications every year” rather than a “more appropriate applications” outlook makes marketing more important that talent searching and development.

7. Put more emphasis on grades and true academic accomplishments. In this way colleges can help support classroom teachers and develop more of the students they say they want.

8. Educate faculty members and boards of trustees on the realities of standardized testing.

True, all of this is more labor-intensive than using the SAT, but in the long run, it should be worth the effort. Although one may never perfect the art of human assessment, the pleasure of dealing with bright, ambitious adolescents as they make their way in life has to be a reward worth the hazards.

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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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