Assessment

Panel Urges Reduced Use of College-Admission Exams

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 30, 2008 4 min read
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As legions of high school students prepare to spend long Saturday mornings this fall taking the SAT or the ACT, a national panel is recommending that colleges consider dropping the tests as an entrance requirement.

A 56-page report released last week by the Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission cites what the panel sees as the tests’ questionable predictive value for college success, an overemphasis on test preparation versus mastery of high school courses, and uneven preparation for the exams 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 the high school curriculum.”

The commission was convened in late 2006 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, 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. (“College-Admissions Group Weighs Calls to Dump SAT,” Oct. 3, 2007.)

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 report calls for abandoning both the use of cutoff scores on college-entrance exams to determine eligibility for scholarships and the practice of using entering freshmen’s scores as indicators of institutional quality.

Those practices, as well as the use of the preliminary SAT, or PSAT, for screening National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, for example, tend to emphasize the importance of test results over other factors, such as the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum and how well the student has mastered it, the report says.

“A growing field of research, in education and psychology,” it says, “suggests different approaches to evaluation that may allow for broader and more inclusive review of individual talents.”

The College Board said in a statement 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 nonprofit group said. “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.”

A spokesman for ACT Inc. said the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization’s college-entrance exam, which tests students’ knowledge in language arts, mathematics, and science, is aligned with high school curricula and college expectations. The test is based on surveys of schools that the nonprofit conducts every several years.

“The ACT exam is based on what is taught in the nation’s high schools,” ACT spokesman Scott Gomer wrote in an e-mail. “When individual states have looked at the ACT, we have done a curriculum match to specific state standards. In most cases there has been a very close match.”

New Tests Proposed

The Princeton Review, which offers classroom-based and online preparation for both tests, believes that in an environment in which parents and students are looking for aid in raising entrance-exam scores, it is helping to level “an unequal playing field for those that cannot afford test preparation,” said Harriet Brand, a spokeswoman for the New York City-based company.

“That is why we try to partner with schools and school districts to offer test preparation for all students, as well as present a range of choices, from free practice tests and strategy sessions, to $20 books, to classroom and online courses to tutoring,” she said.

The NACAC commission’s report says that achievement tests aligned with a college-preparatory curriculum could better gauge students’ readiness for college. It calls for 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.

The 21-member commission says that more than 280 colleges and universities have made the SAT and ACT exams optional.

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 admissions decisions, maintains 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 October 01, 2008 edition of Education Week as Panel Urges Reduced Use of College-Admission Exams

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