College admission conundrum?

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College admission conundrum?
Book (with title: 'SAT I' on cover) burns in a small fire
Credit: Kevin Wong

As college admissions letters crisscross the country, we wonder about standardized testing. Do the SAT and ACT accurately anticipate college success? Are they essential gauges of a student’s potential and ability?

Aye, says the College Board, which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test to about 1.66 million high school students each year. “The SAT is among the most rigorously researched and designed tests in the world and dozens of internal and external studies show that the SAT is a valid predictor of college success for all students,” wrote Katherine Levin of the Board’s communications office.

The SAT costs $51, but she adds that between the SAT and advanced placement tests, the Board waives a total of more than $70 million in fees each year.

Nay, say a cadre of skeptics, who say standardized tests exclude intelligent students whose abilities are not measured well on the tests. A recent study of 123,000 students at institutions where standardized tests are optional found that non-submitters had an average college GPA (grade point average) just 0.05 below those who did report test scores for judging during admission.

enrollment-gap: Graph shows that enrollment rate has been steadily increasing from 1974 to 2012, though the rate of White is always higher than those of Black and Hispanic.
Graph shows the percentage of all 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college (excepting those who are in the military or prison).
Trends in Higher Education Series, Copyright © 2013. The College Board, with permission.

College graduation rates were also close: test submitters were just 0.6 percent more likely to graduate than the non-submitters. “That’s nothing,” says William Hiss, the principal investigator. “What was surprising is how consistent the data has been,” he adds.

Hiss, who recently retired as long-time dean of admissions at Bates College in Maine, says the GPA and other aspects of the applicant’s high-school years are much better predictors of success. Bates ceased requiring standardized admission tests in 1984.

His studies of student performance at Bates mirrored his national study, Hiss says. “I was also pleased, and a little surprised, that … the non-submitters turn out to be, in higher percentages, members of all the subgroups that folk wisdom would tell you have not been helped by standardized tests: first generation to college, all categories of minorities, Pell grant recipients [who meet federal low-income standards], LD [learning differently] kids and marginally more women.” After looking at records from 33 public and private undergraduate institutions, the study found “few significant differences” between students who did and did not submit test scores.

2. A ------- to the mean? (A) recitation   (B) penchant   (C) consternation   (D) reversion[BOLD]

re·ver·sion noun: return to a previous state

Graduation rates at public universities

graduate-rate: graph shows that graduation rate for non-submitters is higher than submitters.
At the six universities under study, students who did not submit standardized test scores graduated at higher rates than those who did submit their scores.
Credit: modification of graph by Hiss et al, 2014.

Absolve us. We could not resist using a classic “SAT-word,” from the test’s venerable vocabulary interrogatories (a category whose imminent metamorphosis will occur in 2016).

A third group comes down in the middle, averring that standardized tests facilitate better decisions. “I advocate using standardized tests for admission purposes, but think we need to change our expectations,” says James Wollack, associate professor of educational psychology and director of testing and evaluation services at the UW Center for Placement Testing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“A test can only do so much,” Wollack cautions. “So long as we recognize that they tell us useful information, but only a small piece, and continue to use them in conjunction with other pieces of information during the admission process, then they are very valuable.”


To some extent, this reiterates the stand of the College Board: “In nearly all validity studies, high school GPA and SAT scores in combination are shown to be the best predictors of college success,” Levin wrote us. “The College Board continues to advocate for a variety of factors to be considered in the admissions process and high-quality research including our own shows that neither the SAT nor high school GPA should be used alone when making admissions decisions.”

3. We've heard plenty of ------- about the tests l (A) machinations (B) diatribes (C) caterwauling (D) proclaiming

cat·er·waul verb 1) to make a loud, unpleasant sound, like a cat in heat 2) to protest or complain noisily.

And even though most American colleges and universities still use one test or the other, a critical organization called Fairtest lists 800 schools that do not require them for admission, and says the “test-optional” list is growing.

a soldier in blue flipping over the exam papers and writing down the answers on a separate sheet
Seaman Chanthorn Peou of San Diego, Calif., took the SAT aboard aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, as part of the Navy’s continued education services.
Credit: Pacific Ocean, Feb. 23, 2004,

John Fraire, vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Washington State University, said his university would persevere with its test-optional policy. “When it was first announced, in 2008, it got widespread support, now it’s become pretty much a non-issue. The walls have not crumbled, the university has not fallen apart, it’s business as usual.”

Washington State assures admission to any student (in-state or out) who has, in college preparatory courses, earned a 3.5 GPA or is in the top 10 percent of the class.

“Standardized tests are expressions of exclusionary practices,” Fraire says. “There is widespread documentation that standardized tests are inherently biased against first generation students, women, people of color, older people and at same time there is significant indication that they are not relevant to academic predictability for students.”

And standardized tests can become a crutch, a shortcut, Fraire adds. “As someone who for 35 years has worked in student affairs and admissions, I see a lot of universities that claim to use a holistic approach and look at individual circumstances, essays, but the bottom line is standardized tests still drive the process. Too many institutions use a minimum cutoff to determine admission and scholarship.”

Predictive power: high-school grades trump standardized tests in data from 33 institutions

Test submitters are compared to two categories of non-submitters. In all three groups, college cumulative GPA closely tracks high school GPA. Rollover: The association is much looser when college GPA is graphed against SAT scores, showing that the SAT is less reliable than high school grades for predicting college cumulative GPA at these institutions.
From original graphics courtesy Hiss et al, 2014.

At UW-Madison, all undergrad applicants must submit a score for SAT or ACT, says Adelle Brumfield, director of admissions. “In our holistic review [of applicants], the score is one of many factors we consider. Fundamentally, the most important consideration is the student’s academic record. We look at the strength of the program and performance in class. We believe these are great indicators of the level of preparation that we can use to determine how they might fare” at UW-Madison.

UW-Madison “does not use a score cutoff per se,” Brumfield says, “but we talk to students about score bands, where, combined with other factors, there is more likelihood of being admitted. But every student is evaluated individually.”

4. ---- or stifling students? (A) salutary (B) resistive (C) anemic (D) hydrous (hover over to see answer)

sal·u·tar·y adj : beneficial

Critics argue that the SAT and ACT both give a leg up to adept test-takers and those can afford private test-prep courses. That’s ironic, considering that the SAT was originally intended to transcend class differences. As Saul Geiser of the University of California – Berkeley wrote in 2008,

“Whereas the older ‘College Boards’ had tested knowledge of college-preparatory subjects, the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test, introduced in 1926, purported to measure a student’s capacity for learning. The idea of the SAT dovetailed perfectly with the meritocratic ethos of American college admissions. If aptitude for learning could be reliably measured, the SAT could provide a vehicle for social mobility: Colleges could identify promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, despite inferior instruction and academic performance, were nevertheless deserving of admission.”
In the original SAT (1926), students confronted 315 questions in 97 minutes:
1926-SAT: A question that asks candidates to pick three words that are closely related from six words.

Although “aptitude,” or the ability to learn, is tough to measure, and the current term, “assessment,” is pretty nebulous, the SAT does not purport to gauge what students have learned in high school.

SAT test-prep books on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble store in New York City. In 2016, applicants will be able to get free, online help for the revised SAT.

Its primary competition, the ACT, takes a different tack. “The ACT college readiness assessment is a curriculum- and standards-based educational and career planning tool that assesses students’ academic readiness for college,” ACT public relations staff told us by email. “Scores on the ACT reflect what students have learned throughout high school and provide colleges and universities with excellent information for advising, course placement, and retention.”

We asked ACT PR to respond to assertions that the requirement for an ACT or SAT score reduces the pool of college applicants by race, socio-economic status and family experience with higher education. “This assertion is primarily the result of the fact that underrepresented students from these groups have lower ACT scores than average,” they responded. “Of course, academic achievement is one of the primary determinants of college success. It does no one any good to have a student enroll in a college only to find that they lack the skills necessary for success. ACT scores simply reflect the reality that some students are less well prepared for college than others.”

5. Jettison the ------- tests? (A) sibilant   (B) specious   (C) blithe   (D) hydrous

spe·cious adj. : Erroneous, phony, hollow

Not so, says Fraire of Washington State. “There are scores of studies that show the cultural bias of standardized tests, particularly the SAT. They have no predictability for all these different groups, and the same studies show only limited prediction for middle-class, straight Caucasian males, and only in the first year of college.”

Another issue concerns people who have difficulty on standardized tests, especially those with different learning needs, says Hiss. “Learning-difference youngsters are in a world we are only beginning to understand. Putting a dyslexic youngster in a high-speed processing exam is a bizarre way to think you are measuring talent.”

Hiss adds that a noted radiologist at Harvard Medical School “is a severe dyslexic who says she sees X-rays in 3d. How do you test for that?”

In 2013, the College Board reported that 5 percent of test takers cited a “disabling condition,” but that only 2 percent got an “accommodation,” such as a Braille exam or extra time to complete the test. The critical reading, math and writing scores were below the 50th percentile among both groups, although it’s unclear whether that signifies low academic potential, poor testing ability, or the Board’s refusal to “accommodate” 60 percent of the subjects who claimed disability.

Two percent “does not pass the laugh test,” Hiss insists. “The College Board has been very, very conservative in allowing accommodations on the SAT. I don’t know what the exact percentage should be, but it’s a lot higher than that.”

Painting shows candidates dressed in Chinese ancient garment writing with Chinese writing brushes
A Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) painting of candidates taking the imperial examination, a rudimentary test in China. Gunpowder, invented during the Song Dynasty, did not prevent its defeat by the Mongols in 1279.
The downside of college entrance exams:-------and -------.  (A) felonies and feudalism   (B) deceits and datums   (C) qualms and cavils   (D) cabals and kinsfolk (hover below for answer)

qualms and cav·ils nouns : worries, hesitations and small arguments or concerns

candidates sitting down on the ground in rows, taking an exam in a yard, with examiners standing or passing by.
Tests are a fact of life in most educational systems: Students on a compound outside the school take end-of-year exams in 10th class math.
Credit: Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram, Jaura, India, Yann

By their nature, high-stakes tests evoke trepidation, yet such tests are also deeply entrenched in Europe and Asia, where the high-school record is often ignored and a single test determines college admittance. In the United States, a trend toward ubiquitous testing has been fueled by the No Child Left Behind law. Tests are often justified as a way to hold teachers, schools and students “accountable.”

“Tests are not going away” in higher education, Brumfield adds. “At UW, many undergraduates have aspirations to graduate or professional school, where there will be more tests, and some cases, exit exams where they will have to demonstrate a capacity to perform or be licensed in a particular state.”

Which does not mean admissions tests are always popular. In 2008, the National Association for College Admission Counseling raised questions about standardized tests:

Despite their prevalence in American high school culture, college admission exams—such as the SAT and ACT—may not be critical to making good admission decisions at many of the colleges and universities that use them. While the exams…provide useful information, colleges and universities may be better served by admission exams more closely linked to high school curriculum…

The Commission encourages institutions to consider dropping the admission test requirements if it is determined that the predictive utility of the test or the admission policies of the institution (such as open access) support that decision…

graph showing that percentage of underrepresented minority students has increased steadily since 1980, with a sharp increase in 2008
Minority enrollment soared after Bates College made standardized tests optional in 1986. Study author William Hiss says that at Bates, submitters and non-submitters show “no major differences” in employment in business, finance and media, where high-stakes tests have little clout.
7. Accursed ACT; ------- SAT?  (A) sanctimonious   (B) vicarious   (C) phlegmatic   (D) sanguineous  (hover below for answer)

sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous adj. A showy or hypocritical pretense of holiness or rectitude

As mentioned, even the College Board concedes that “high school GPA and SAT scores in combination are shown to be the best predictors of college success.”

By itself, that does not argue against requiring tests. But what if the requirement turns out to exclude students who lack money for test-prep, or who tend to test below their true potential?”

Hiss, who is something of a crusader on the issue, says “Students are taking themselves out of application pools even before colleges get a chance to talk to them, on the basis of SAT scores.””

That position finds some support from Wollack, a testing expert at UW-Madison. “I suspect” that standardized tests scare students away from colleges, he says, “and to the extent that any people who might have been admitted are choosing not to apply, that’s obviously not something we want. My guess is that on most campuses they are being used as they should, as a small piece of the [admittance] formula. I think there are probably very few schools that won’t accept students below some SAT or ACT threshold.” “

Tests are a means to an end, Brumfield, the admissions director, reminds us. “Our ultimate goal is to make sure, for the students we offer admission to, that there is evidence in many factors that they will find success, will thrive here, with the help of our faculty and staff.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Yilang Peng, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive