A Step in the Right Direction: Less reliance on Standardized tests

Here’s some interesting news.  It seems that the admissions folks at colleges across the country are starting to realize that standardized tests may not be the best indication of someone’s academic ability.  Huh–who knew?!  Mind-boggling, indeed. From The Boston Globe:

Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., will no longer require prospective students to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications. At both institutions, the policies will take effect with the class entering in fall 2009.

The number of colleges and universities where such tests are now optional, mostly small liberal arts colleges, has been growing steadily as more institutions have become concerned about the validity of standardized tests in predicting academic success and the degree to which test performance correlates with household income, parental education, and race.

Some schools that have made standardized tests optional have found that they have attracted a more diverse student body, with no decline in academic ability.

“By making the SAT and ACT optional, we hope to broaden the applicant pool and increase access at Wake Forest for groups of students who are currently underrepresented at selective universities,” said Martha Allman, Wake Forest’s director of admissions.

While students will still have the option of submitting standardized test scores – and, in fact, the majority of applicants still do so at many test-optional colleges – the most important criteria for admission will be high school curriculum and classroom performance, writing ability, extracurricular activities, and evidence of character and talent.

Wake Forest, with 4,500 undergraduates, is ranked 30th among national universities by U.S. News & World Report, and is the highest-ranked on that list to have dropped its testing requirements. Smith, the nation’s largest undergraduate women’s college, with 2,600 students, received 3,771 applications this year, the most in its 137-year history.

4 thoughts on “A Step in the Right Direction: Less reliance on Standardized tests

  1. I too am cautiously pleased by this development. There’s some thought that this is not so much reflecting a doubt about the validity of standardized tests, as a way for schools such as Wake and Smith to keep up in admissions competitions with local or category competitors (like Duke) with persistently higher SAT stats. The SAT is only hurting them with desirable applicants who pay attention to it, so they drop it and try to make virtue of necessity.

    See also Joe Soares’ The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite College (2007, Stanford University Press) (he’s a sociologist at Wake) for an analysis of how these types of maneuvers do little to challenge the elite hierarchy in educational access. From these perspectives admissions folks already know that the tests are of limited meritocratic value; for those schools that can afford to do so they just offer another tool to engineer the class by other criteria while keeping up the legitimating appearance of merit.

    I’m not sure I buy the full intentional class conspiracy version of this analysis, but I do think that like organisms social systems ‘want’ to reproduce themselves and find ways to do that.

  2. Thanks for the reference, Carl. Cautiously pleased is a nice way to characterize all of this.

    Do I view the SAT as a large stumbling block to the economic advancement of every young person whose parents do not drive a BMW SUV? Perhaps. And certainly the admissions folks find other ways to engineer and reproduce class structure vis a vis other criteria. Do I think achievement tests not only fail to measure learning, but even more egregiously tend to both narrow and dumb down teaching in the classroom? Definitely. And this is probably where standardized testing as a measurement and predictor of college success in admissions breaks down. Yet, this just seems to backslide into the “adaptability” of the admissions people anyway.

    In the case of Smith, you’re probably right that like Wake they’re trying to draw people away from other schools, in this case, I’d say Barnard. I was talking about this with a friend and she quipped that the people who end up going to Holoyoke were the ones who got waitlisted at Smith anyway…

  3. Good point – I agree that ‘teaching to the test’ is a key factor in the narrowing and dumbing of the classroom, which in some ways is the more troubling thing here.

    However, just to trouble this analysis a little, it wouldn’t much matter who was able to get into Yale, Duke, Wake, Smith, etc. if education was manifestly of the same general quality everywhere else and the students were manifestly all good. And there wouldn’t need to be standardized tests. There’s something a little absurd about even saying that. In actual fact there are lots of really lousy schools, teachers and students. In that context what imposing standardization through a test that looks dumb from a higher level does is enforce a minimum level of mediocrity and disable some of the worst reproductive incompetences. From this perspective what the ‘elite’ reproduction system does is game the tests so they don’t get in the way too much, largely by building the relevent competences into home culture.

    Just thinking out loud here, but I’ve had a lot of experience with Ed folks and generally, the level is very, very low. So I’m not entirely convinced that mechanisms to enforce minimum standards are a bad thing.

  4. Do any schools in the US have “entrance exams” like they do in Russia? This way secondary schools basically do whatever they want as long as they cover the minimum and then kids hire tutors to get them ready for college entrance exams – another class distinction at work, but mostly along the lines of those who can afford to pay for better tutors and are smart enough to get good entrance points…

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