NRC Wants College-Entrance-Exam Scores Downplayed

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As a student nervously ponders a question on the SAT, he may believe his choice of filling in A or D will make or break his prospects at the college of his choice.

But the test's scores shouldn't be the determining factor in a college application if they are used properly in the admissions process, according to a National Research Council report issued last week.

Instead, the scores would be an initial indicator of whether a student could make the grade at the institution. Several other factors--including high school grade point average, academic interests, and ethnicity--should be the determining ones for college-admission officers making the decision, the panel of higher education leaders and testing experts who wrote the report says.

For More Information

"Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions" can be ordered for $18 from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418; (800) 624-6242; or through their Web Site: The report can also be read online in its entirety at:

The problem is not with admission policies, the panel says, but with the perceptions of college applicants and policymakers that SAT and ACT entrance-exam scores are the most important figures on a student's college application.

"The pressures are increasing to rely on the test scores," M.R.C. Greenwood, the chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a co-chair of the panel, said in releasing the report at an event here. "I don't think they are being misused, but the pressure is there for that happen."

Imprecise Measures

Ms. Greenwood and other authors of the report say they hope the 44-page document will inform the public of the proper role of SAT and ACT scores in admissions.

The public perception is that those scores "are precise measures" of a college applicant's intelligence, the report says. In reality, the tests produce scores that "are estimates of student performance with substantial margins of error," it says.

"People often have the notion that a score on the SAT of, say, 610, is clearly superior to a score of 600," said Robert L. Linn, a professor of educational measurement at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the other co-chair of the NRC panel.

In fact, the scores of two applicants could vary as much as 100 points on each section of the SAT if they took the exams on a different day or under different conditions, Mr. Linn added.

The SAT, sponsored by the New York City-based College Board, is divided into two sections, verbal and reasoning, each of which is scored on a 800-point scale. The ACT, which is offered by the Iowa City, Iowa, nonprofit ACT Inc. , includes subject-matter tests in English, mathematics, reading, and science. Ninety percent of colleges require scores from either of the exams as part of their application process.

Entrance-exam scores can be useful, the report says, for admissions officers by helping them sort applicants into general categories: students who obviously meet the academic demands of the college, those who do not, and those on the fence.

But when making final decisions, colleges should downplay those scores and look at other factors, such as GPAs, extracurricular activities, and application essays.

College officials also must make admission decisions based on "overarching intellectual and other goals," the report says. They must decide, for example, whether they will admit students who will pursue a variety of academic interests.

If a school relied too heavily on test scores, it would have an enrollment disproportionately filled with science and engineering students, who tend to do better on tests than social science and humanities students, according to John D. Wiley, the provost at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and another member of the NRC panel.

How Much Diversity?

A school also must decide if it wants a diverse student body, with representatives from different races, ethnic backgrounds, and regions, the report says.

Test-score data have fueled "reverse discrimination" lawsuits against the University of Texas and the University of Michigan systems, but Ms. Greenwood and Mr. Wiley defended the rights of those institutions to select students based on factors other than scores. "You have to explain that [admission-test] scores aren't the whole ballgame," Ms. Greenwood said. "The scores were a part of it, but not all of it."

The gap between the test scores of minority students and white students is smaller than the one between engineers and humanities students, Mr. Wiley added.

An official of the College Board said her organization was already doing much of the work to educate the public about the proper role of test scores in the admission process. "Perhaps we have to look at it so people not only understand it but apply it," said Janice A. Gams, a board spokeswoman.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 10

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as NRC Wants College-Entrance-Exam Scores Downplayed
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