College Entrance Exams Aren’t Really Necessary

college-admissions-test-1Today is Monday, February 24, 2014.

Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it.  –William Hiss

There’s a new study out, published just this month, that confirms what teachers and college admissions people already know: college admissions tests such as SAT and ACT don’t really predict success in college, particularly if the student’s high school grades aren’t that stellar.

The study was done by William Hiss, a retired dean of admissions at Bates College, a private liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine, and Valerie Wilson Franks, a former assistant dean of admissions at Bates.  Bates College had a test-optional admissions policy since 1984, even though it has always required students to submit their SAT scores. The school is highly selective of their applicants, but even though they realized back in the early 1980s that SAT scores don’t make that much of a difference, they had to prove it.  That’s where Hiss and Franks came in.  The school initiated its test-optional admissions policy back in 1984, but in order to do the study, they had to require students to submit SAT scores.

Most studies up to this time have been done by individual collages as in-house research, and these prior studies have convinced as many as 850 institutions of higher learning (as of 2012) to abandon standardized test scores or make them optional for admissions purposes.  What makes this foundation-sponsored study different is that it compares scores from various standardized tests over eight cohort years in 33 different colleges and universities around the nation, including “twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority-serving institutions, and two arts institutions, a total of approximately 123,000 student records at institutions with enrollments from 50,000 students to 350, located in twenty-two US states and territories.  They vary widely from a large scientific and technical university to a Native American college, from traditional liberal arts collages and universities to fine arts/design institutions to urban and rural minority-serving institutions.”  (Quoted from the introduction to the study itself, which is published online here.)

What the study found is this: high school grades collected over a period of three years are much more valuable and reliable indicators of academic success than test scores, which represent student performance over a period of three hours on a Saturday morning.  By looking at what types of students elect to submit standardized test scores or not, the study corroborated the idea that standardized tests work against certain students.  Students who chose not to submit their test scores were more likely to be the first person in their family to attend college.  They were also more likely to be minority students, women, Pell Grant recipients, and students with “learning differences.”    However, the study also concluded that not every student who chose not to submit a standardized test score was a minority or one who needed a grant in order to attend college.  A statistically significant group of students was white, middle class, and did not qualify for or did not seek a grant.  The study found that students who chose not to submit their standardized test scores did just as well as those who submitted their scores for admission, as measured by their university GPA (grade-point average). Hiss and Franks’ study has a powerful potential as impetus for change in the way we run our institutions of higher learning in the United States.

How did standardized test scores for university admissions get started, anyway?   Well, the very first IQ test was created in France, called the Binet-Simon Scale, after its two creators.  The test had been commissioned by the French government to predict which public school students might need extra help, since they had just passed laws requiring all students to attend school.   Psychologists and educators in the United States were interested in this test, so Sanford University took up the challenge of standardizing the test, which resulted in the Sanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient, the test which is still used today, now simply known as the “IQ” test.

test-prepWhen World War I started, the United States Army suddenly had a lot of recruits to deal with . The task was to match the knowledge and aptitude of recruits to particular assignments in the military.  The Army Alpha test was created for recruits who could read, and Army Beta was given orally to recruits who were illiterate.  After World War I, various IQ tests remained in use, not only in the military, but also to screen new immigrants at Ellis Island, a practice which led to sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people that were unconscionably inaccurate.

The army intelligence tests got the attention of the presidents of two Ivy League schools, with the result that, in the late 1930s, the SAT became the admissions test of choice for Ivies.  From 1901 to 1941, SAT stood for Scholastic Achievement Test.  In 1941, the test was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test because it was evident that the test better measured aptitude (potential) rather than past achievement.  From 1990 to 1994, the test was called the Scholastic Assessment Test, kind of backing away from the idea that the tests actually predict academic potential.  Now the meaning of the acronym is not specified.

After World War II, standardized tests became more important at all universities, which were flooded with applicants for admission because of the G.I. Bill that guaranteed military veterans the financial resources to go to college.  The idea was that students from poor backgrounds could compete for admission more fairly with students who came from families with money and influential connections.

Many people in this country still seem to think that standardized college entrance exams are created, administered and scored by universities, but nothing could be further from the truth.  This is big business, folks, and tests such as the SAT and ACT are written, given, and scored by for-profit companies, and it costs $51 to take the SAT and $52.50 to take the ACT test with writing section.  Not only that, but there is a whole test-preparation industry geared to get students and their families to part with their hard-earned cash just to learn how to get ready for these tests.  This whole industry generates a profit of $2 billion a year.

Although the intent of the standardized tests was originally to level the playing field a bit for students who were not from elite backgrounds, they have actually ended up doing the exact opposite, because of the high fees for taking and preparing for the test.  Many students simply cannot afford to take the test, much less prepare for it.   Meanwhile, students from richer families can afford to spend money on test prep if they didn’t do well in high school, or to take the test more than once, if they did poorly on the test the first time.  The rich, in other words, are still gaming the system.

In addition, another weakness of standardized testing that educators have long bemoaned is that they unfairly elevate certain types of academic ability, with the result that students who are plenty intelligent, but who have so-called “learning disabilities” that make standardized tests difficult are heavily discriminated against.  The result is that the tests do not level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students, including minorities, women, rural students and those who have no money for higher education.  Meanwhile, because laws such as No Child Left Behind have made test scores so important, not only for college admission, but for ranking K-12 schools and keeping them “in line” in terms of curriculum, schools nowadays spend much more time teaching to the standardized tests than truly educating our children, narrowing the focus to what is covered in the tests rather than providing a broad, well-rounded, world-class education, bending over backwards to give disadvantaged kids every break in order to raise test scores.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Kids – especially teens – have had it with testing, and so have the teachers and parents.  Meanwhile, standardized testing for K-12 schools is big business, too.  K-12 school districts spend millions on tests every year and once again, it’s not the schools who write the tests.  It’s for-profit companies.

Big business is making profits hand over fist with college prep tests, test preparation materials and classes, K-12 standardized tests, and let’s not forget K-12  textbooks, while we’re at it.  Meanwhile, schools suffer, teachers suffer, and most of all – students suffer!

Now that there is a published study that calls into question the whole idea of standardized tests as reliable predictors of academic success in college, some things may begin to change, but not without a lot of push-back from big companies.  I certainly hope that the Obama administration and any other administration after his will consider abolishing the system of standardized testing, or at least minimizing its importance, in future Elementary and Secondary Education Acts (ESEAs).  I hope that more and more institutions of higher learning will agree to make standardized test scores optional for admission or consider abolishing the system altogether.  I hope public schools will get back to the business of teaching and learning, rather than endless test preparation, and I hope that more students of color, students with so-called learning disabilities, and students from economically challenged backgrounds will be admitted to our American universities.  🙂

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