Taming the Testing Dragon

The coming new year for the Chinese is the Year of the Ox, so I’m going to go with that spirit and suggest it’s time to tell students applying to college that they can take the ACT or SAT once and that’s it. The current discussion about “score choice” and what colleges want versus what the College Board wants them to want versus what ACT is doing and how all the test prep companies figure into all this mess cries out for a Gordian knot solution (sorry to mix cultural references). I’ve said many times that the admission process is far too complicated, overgrowing students’ educations and becoming more important than what they’re learning in high school. So, to repeat: Limit students to taking the SAT or ACT once. Period. We’ll all be better off.

I know many will shriek at this limitation of students’ right to flay themselves in the quest for collegiate Valhalla, but let’s think about some of the issues (and for the sake of argument I’ll try to limit my own abhorrence of these tests):

Argument: Students should have the right to take the test as many times as they wish and report their best scores to enhance their applications. It’s a free country!
Response: Many may see a one-time testing approach as too similar to the European all or nothing tests (and many people still think of the tests as the be-all-and-end-all for college admission). But a test score in the U.S. is not determinative; it can be considered, downplayed, or lauded by any college to whom it is reported. And it doesn’t limit where students can apply. Hundreds of institutions don’t even use the scores or are score optional, with little effect on the quality of their student bodies. And even those who use scores often downplay them when necessary to enroll athletes, legacies, talented minority students, and so on. In other words, scores are fungible, not fixed; one set of scores or six doesn’t really make that much of a difference.

Argument: Students should have the opportunity to get their best scores to indicate their true abilities.
Response: The College Board, which produces the SAT, long ago gave up the myth they themselves originated that the test can’t be coached since it was an indicator of innate abilities. It even offers its own prep courses to subvert (sorry, prepare for) the test. And companies like Princeton Review and others, whatever one might think of them, have demonstrated that it is possible to raise scores not by knowing more about geometry or American history, but by knowing how the test is structured. How this adds to a student’s academic qualities has yet to be determined. Ironically, students who take the test again and raise their scores significantly can be accused of cheating, and a very high test score coupled with low or mediocre grades can brand an applicant a slug in class. So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and whatever “true ability” is is certainly not being measured by the ACT or SAT.

Argument: Taking the test several times is just a good way to get a better score; it’s not unfair or anything.
Response: Practice tests already exist for the SAT and the ACT, namely, the PSAT and the PLAN. Administered at students’ schools, they come back with detailed explanations of what students got right and wrong and what concepts they need to work on for when they take the test for real. In fact, students can take the PLAN and the PSAT in their sophomore and junior years, without scores being reported anywhere, so they have plenty of time to see what they need to improve when the time comes.

Argument: If students want to take the test multiple times, what’s wrong with that?
Response: Well, nothing, really, if you think that going through hours of test prep, anxiety, and craziness, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of dollars somehow are positive educational developments. Testing already crowds out actual academic subjects as early as third grade, and drilling for college entrance exams is the most tedious, boring, and retrograde activity a school can indulge in. No wonder students hate it. Students are already idiotically overtested and as to whether it’s always the students’ choice to take and retakes the tests, I’d look more closely at parental influence.

Argument: Test prep and multiple testing give students a taste of what’s expected of them in college.
Response: I for one wouldn’t attend an institution that focused on testing like that as an evaluative measure. Does it introduce concepts to think about, encourage intellectual development, accurately measure what a student knows? No. Testing is something to be gotten through, not embraced. It is intellectually deadening and as welcome as plague. Most students will find that, except for huge institutions with classes of hundreds, they will rarely see SAT-like tests.

Argument: A student can have an “off” day on the one day that the test is given, leading to a “false negative” score.
Response: A student’s score is always considered in the context of high school strength and GPA; an “off” day could easily be seen as that in the admission process when so-so scores accompany an otherwise strong record. Scores (as well as every other application element) are subject to the sense and good judgment of the individuals reading applications, so there is every reason to believe that a sense of who’s “off” can be developed with a one-test limit even as it is now with multi-test scores being reported.

Argument: Colleges need to be able to put the best scores of their applicants together so they can put together the best profiles possible, so allowing students to take the tests multiple times is to their advantage.
Response: This is a college issue, not a student or educational issue. In my experience we spent much more time talking about students’ activities, courses, and achievements than their test scores in committee. One argument is that no college wants to have poorer scores to report than its competitors do. But if everyone has only the one score to report, a deflation will occur across the board and equilibrium should be maintained.

Argument: Multiple scores enable colleges to get the best bond ratings and rankings.
Response: Aside from the insidiousness of these methods of rating colleges, the same principle applies as in the answer above: If all institutions have the same one-test figures, it seems likely that everything will reach an equilibrium that would merely lead to a recalibration of the ratings and the rankings.

Argument: A single test date would put more pressure on students because there would be no “safety valve” if the results weren’t good.
Response: Probably, but it would be up to colleges and universities to put the test in a more enlightened context by showing how they use it and where it actually stands in the admission hierarchy. In fact, adopting the one-time test might cause colleges to rethink how they use it because it would be a rawer picture of the test-taker, more “authentic,” so to speak. A single date would be intense, but knowing it would all be over afterwards might be liberating. If the date were at the end of junior year, results received in the summer might provide motivation for doing better in courses senior year to make up for a poor score.

There are many reasons to support a one-time only test:

1. The hours and dollars spent on test prep seriously distract from more useful activities like homework and true academic development, whether they’re sponsored through schools as classtime sessions or after school. Especially in areas with a high percent of first-generation or poor students, it is critical that time and dollars not be sacrificed for something as ephemeral and uncertain as test prep. I know of one school that has spent nearly $60,000.00 on test prep for students who could have better been served by spending that money on academic enhancement, tutoring, equipment, and so on. A recent article in Harper’s magazine (September 2008) documenting a year of test prep in a New York City school is illuminating. Click on this entry’s title to go to the article.

2. Test prep as a part of schooling is a kind of regression to the days of rote learning, which has long since been abandoned in this country. It kills motivation, deadens intellectual curiosity, and makes education look like a hoop to jump through rather that an ongoing source of personal development. It makes students and teachers cynical; no good teacher I know will sacrifice a classroom discussion about “Death of a Salesman” for an SAT vocabulary drill. And no student would willingly attend. He may not care for Arthur Miller, either, but at least there’s the possibility that something interesting might come up. (Furthermore, it most disadvantages those who can least afford it: First-generation and other underserved students who most need to learn the basics of English, math, and so on to do well in college.)

3. Multiple testing opportunities favor those already privileged; a one-time test date can even the playing field to a certain extent. While privileged students can still afford the books and testing that non-privileged students can’t, the one-time test means that what you see is what you get on the other end. Will non-privileged students suffer because they can’t afford test prep or the ability to try again? Those students already have extra consideration for their backgrounds and lack of educational support, so test scores will continue to be seen that way. (Remember, test scores have been shown definitiely to have cultural biases.) It will affect privileged students more, because they’ll have to live with their scores without being able to tinker with them over and over. (Idea: After adopting the one-test only policy, schools can ask “Estimate how much preparation you received or paid for before the test.” The more that’s reported, the less credible the test. Fantasy I know, but still…)

4. Multiple testing is a financial bonanza that offers little real improvement in educational environment, siphoning off money from individuals and school systems that could be put to better use. While test prep companies and the College Board get rich coming and going, that money doesn’t go to enhancing educational opportunity (although the companies do provide their services pro bono in many circumstances). And schools that can’t really afford it are led to chase the ephemara of scores as a way to getting their students into college rather than focusing on building their academic programs.

5. The ability to take the test multiple times fosters the idea that testing is more crucial than it really is. Like Sysiphus, rolling the stone up the hill only to have it roll down again so he has to start all over again, multiple testing really accomplishes very little while creating great strain and anxiety. Nothing gets learned, nothing is accomplished, other more fruitful opportunities are passed up, and in the end, an admission decision can be made in spite of scores as much as because of them. Consistently, according to NACAC, a student’s GPA and course strength are the most compelling parts of the application; the scores are really more window dressing. They’re easy to look at and mess with; they have acquired a magical quality; and they play into our love of lists and bests/worsts. So while admission officers tend to drool over big scores, they also can see the proverbial “diamonds in the rough” that shine in class without the burnishing of high test scores.

Adopting a one-time only testing policy may be seen as radical, but it would help to simplify and equalize the whole testing universe. Colleges and universities should consider cutting back the testing underbrush while at the same time promoting the importance of academic achievement more forcefully.

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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.
This entry was posted in admission practices, college admission, college applications, SAT, test scores, testing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Taming the Testing Dragon

  1. I appreciate all your cogent arguments for limiting the SAT to one sitting. I’d argue, however, that taking the test only once would only increase the stakes and the anxiety level of students. I offered a different take on the SAT problem in a post on my blog, TheCollegeSolutionBlog.com. You can read about the crazy SAT experiences of a teenager in my son’s carpool by clicking this link:http://thecollegesolutionblog.com/category/sat-test/

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  2. Drammy says:

    “Argument: A student can have an “off” day on the one day that the test is given, leading to a “false negative” score.Response: A student’s score is always considered in the context of high school strength and GPA; an “off” day could easily be seen as that in the admission process when so-so scores accompany an otherwise strong record. Scores (as well as every other application element) are subject to the sense and good judgment of the individuals reading applications, so there is every reason to believe that a sense of who’s “off” can be developed with a one-test limit even as it is now with multi-test scores being reported.”I respectfully disagree. A lot of times scores make or break you, whether you have a crazy good GPA or not. e.g. if I had a really bad day and scored 1500 out of 2400, most competitive schools would just toss me out…regardless of the rigor of my courses.

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  3. Diane says:

    I *almost* agree with you. But like Drammy said, a bad test score can make or break you in some cases. Besides the possibility of a low test score influencing an admissions decision, it also could impact which scholarships a student is eligible for.

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