Federal

Panel Urges Reduced Use of College-Admission Tests

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 22, 2008 5 min read
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As legions of high school students prepare to spend long Saturday mornings this fall taking the SAT or ACT college-entrance tests, a national commission is recommending that colleges and universities should consider dropping the tests as a requirement for college entry.

A 56-page report released today by the Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission cites what the panel sees as the tests’ questionable predictive value for student success in college, the focus that reliance on the exams places on test-preparation over mastering a strong curriculum, and the uneven preparation for the tests among different student groups.

“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,” the report says. “While the exams, used by a large majority of four-year colleges and universities to make admission decisions, provide useful information, colleges and universities may be better served by admission exams more closely linked to high school curriculum.”

The commission was convened in late 2006 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va., partly in response to a rash of scoring errors on the SAT, which is owned by the New York City-based College Board. Another impetus was what the association said was a “growing” number of colleges adopting optional-test policies, though the size of that movement is in dispute.

The panel, made up of high school counselors and college-admissions officers, was chaired by William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admission and financial aid at Harvard University.

Practical Changes Urged

The commission’s report suggests that colleges assess for themselves how much scores on college-entrance exams can predict academic success among students from various subgroups at their institutions.

The use of cut scores on college-entrance exams to determine which students are eligible for scholarships, and the tallying of test scores of entering freshmen as an indicator of an institution’s quality, should be abandoned, according to the report. The use of the preliminary SAT, or PSAT, for screening National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, and the ranking of colleges and universities according to the scores of entering freshman, for example, tend to overemphasize the importance of test results over other indicators, such as the rigor of a school’s curriculum and how well students master it, the panel says in the report.

The commission stressed that more information on students’ academic accomplishments is better than less in making college-admission decisions. “A growing field of research, in education and psychology, suggests different approaches to evaluation that may allow for broader and more inclusive review of individual talents,” the report says. “While we can generalize about the relative importance of factors in the admission decision across colleges and universities, this commission stresses that as a foundation for discussing the use of standardized admission tests for undergraduate admission, the varying form, function, and mission of colleges and universities prevents us from suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The College Board said in a statement today that it agrees with the NACAC panel “that the best preparation for college-admissions tests is knowledge gained from an academic core curriculum.”

“We strongly support NACAC’s decision to further study the efficacy of commercial test preparation and agree with the need to educate students and families about current and future findings regarding commercial test preparation,” the College Board statement says. “Hundreds of national research studies show that the SAT is a valid predictor of college success, and it also serves the important function of guarding against grade inflation at the high school level. We have long advised that the best use of the SAT in the admission process is in combination with high school grades.”

New Tests Proposed

Achievement tests aligned with a college-preparatory curriculum could better gauge students’ readiness for college, the commission’s report says. The commission recommends the development of such tests by college and secondary school professionals and state and local education agencies.

The use of such tests would send a “message to students,” the report says, “that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test-prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum.”

Educators and experts in the field have debated for years the value and validity of using college-entrance-exam scores as a primary criterion for admissions.

A year ago, more than 100 high school counselors and college-admissions officers packed a standing-room-only “listening meeting” of the commission in Austin, Texas that began airing questions about the utility of the SAT and the ACT, which is owned by Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT, Inc.

Several hundred colleges and universities have already modified or eliminated entrance-exam requirements, and allowed alternative measures of students’ achievement and preparedness for higher education.

The 21-member commission says that more than 280 colleges and universities have made college-entrance exams optional. Yet the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization known as FairTest that is critical of what it sees as bias in and misuse of college-entrance exams for college-admissions decisions, claims that nearly 800 institutions do not require entrance-exam scores for admission.

“The NACAC report accurately captures the concerns about test-score misuse and overuse shared by many high school guidance counselors and college-admissions officers,” Jesse Mermell, FairTest’s executive director, said in a statement. “The test-scores obsession is undermining both equity and educational quality in our nation’s schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week


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