Looking Backwards

The release of NACAC’s report on the effects of test prep (see article here) reminds me that many people have been saying for a long time that test prep mania is one more unintended consequence of the reliance on testing in college admission. At one time, the College Board itself said that there was no point in “studying” for the test because it wasn’t that kind of test–it measured “aptitude,” whatever that is, so it would be as if you were studying for a future you couldn’t foresee.

Now, of course, the College Board has gotten on the meatwagon with all the other dogs and is gobbling up money like a Rottweiler after a raw steak. Even better, it makes money coming, going, and standing still as people scramble to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to do with yet another option (Score Choice) that is so simple you need an instructional video to figure it out. (Go figure…)

But that’s not the topic for today. I’ve said before that I think the issues surrounding college admission testing are pretty well decided: they have very little predictive value that can’t be found elsewhere, and they are more a measure of a student’s zip code than his or her “aptitude” or “abilities” or whatever. The real issue now is the amount of time worrying about, prepping for, and taking these tests is taking away from real academic endeavors and other activities that have substance and meaning. I think it would be wise for colleges to consider how they use testing in light of the effect it has on prospective students, especially those from low-income, underserved schools and neighborhoods.

In some of those schools I’ve seen hallway charts documenting the struggle to gain a few points on the ACT. I’ve seen college process classes that are mostly test prep. I’ve heard in other schools how students are forced to take summer-long test prep courses to bring up their scores. (All this doesn’t even begin to cover the vast amounts of time spent prepping students for state and NCLB tests.) If any students need test prep, they aren’t kids from urban schools–they need education, experience with real ideas, literature, art, chemistry and physics, and all the other things that make becoming educated worthwhile. Drilling for tests would make anyone hate school, and I think in most cases it makes teachers hate school, too. (See this article by Jeremy Miller in Harper’s)

The College Board says it’s all about “Inspiring Minds” (the latest tag line) but testing is not education and test prep isn’t about inspiration, no matter what anyone says; it’s about performance. At best, test prep and testing are post-educative. All you want to do is fill in the right oval; there’s nothing there that contributes to a student’s further development. As the various ancillaries to testing grow like kudzu on a Southern highway, students’ genuine motivation and need for a good education get choked further and further until they get cynical and dulled.

More to the point, as I’ve often said, colleges consider test scores important unless they don’t. In other words, if an applicant’s scores are even within shouting distance of decent, and that applicant is a desired student from an underrepresented background (or talent group–read athlete), the scores become much less significant. I happen to think this is the right thing to do (although I remember how horrified I was when I first saw low scores, thinking they were something real), but the point is that colleges can ignore them at their pleasure, so why require them at all?

My suggestion to colleges and universities is: Think how your admission policies affect the careers of your prospective applicants and the high schools they attend. Think how requiring standardized testing influences the ways schools allocate their time, especially committed but perhaps unsophisticated schools who see those scores as pathways to college more important than any other. Look backwards into early high school and see how an increasing emphasis on testing and test prep distorts the educational progress of all students, no matter what their backgrounds. Perhaps that will be reason enough to significantly lower a reliance on the tests.

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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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