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College Rankings Rankle Counselors, Admissions Officers

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A discussion of a newsmagazine's annual college rankings struck struck a nerve with attendees at the College Board's national conference here this month.

College representatives and high school guidance counselors packed a standing-room-only session to vent their frustrations and hear a U.S. News & World Report editor defend the magazine's annual ratings guide.

Bill McClintock, the director of college counseling at Pennsylvania's Mercersburg Academy, complained that some students and parents used the magazine's ratings as the only factor in a college decision. "I probably spend as much time debunking the rankings as I do on quality family counseling," said Mr. McClintock, who is also a vice president of the National Association of College Admission Counselors.

The question of whether school information can be realistically standardized to provide a fair ranking system is "very dicey," Mr. McClintock said.

Rae Lee Siporin, the director of admissions for the University of California at Los Angeles, bashed the U.S. News ranking system for its use of a "student selectivity" rating.

"What does selectivity have to do with the quality of your institution?" she asked. A large applicant pool might say something about a school's immediate popularity, such as whether it won the Rose Bowl or the national basketball championship, she said, "but I'm not sure how that makes you a qualitatively better institution."

Mel Elfin, a special-projects editor for U.S. News, told attendees that he was always receptive to suggestions for improvement in what was an ongoing process of refining the magazine's ratings system.

He also said the magazine had no intention of stopping what it considered a service to its readers. "I don't believe that because something is difficult or hard to do we shouldn't try it," he said.

Barry McCarty, the director of financial aid at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., said his college had recently chaired a forum to discuss problems with the rating system. He noted that Fred Dietrich, a vice president of the College Board, was leading a committee to explore those issues further.

A survey the New York City-based College Board commissioned on the college-decisionmaking process of 1995 high school seniors who took the Scholastic Assessment Test raised some eyebrows after its release at a panel discussion here.

The survey found that 93 percent of the SAT-taking students were headed to college, and said that academic achievement plays a stronger role than family income in determining where students who take the exam will go to college. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

One panelist at the presentation argued that since most students who take the SAT do so because they intend to go to college, the 93 percent figure was not particularly revealing. Michael Nettles, a University of Michigan education and public-policy professor, said such a result instead raised more questions about the 7 percent who didn't plan to go to college.

Furthermore, Mr. Nettles noted, the SAT takers amounted to only a fraction of the students who graduated. He said questions about why those other students might not have chosen college could provide more useful insights about college decisionmaking.

Several guidance counselors remarked after the session that the study would have been more helpful if it had been done sooner, before students had actually settled on their final plans for the following year.

For the second year in a row, Bill Clinton won a mock election poll of educators gathered here.

In the College Board's annual presidential straw poll, 57 percent said they favored President Clinton--a somewhat higher show of support than last year's 51 percent.

Republicans lagged far behind the Democratic president in the College Board poll of approximately 400 educators. Trailing with 22 percent was retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, who earlier in the week had announced that he would not seek the presidency in 1996. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas came in a distant third with 7 percent.

The poll also revealed that more than 70 percent of the educators favored retaining some sort of affirmative-action policy in college admissions.

--Jeanne Ponessa

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