Following my presentation last year at “The Case for Change in College Admissions” conference at the University of Southern California, a dean from one of America’s most prestigious universities said, "We know the SAT and ACT are not good predictors of college grades, but our faculty resist going test-optional. They are worried about standards."
While the debate over standardized tests and college admissions began 20 years ago, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is faculty complacency and ignorance. Nearly all of the 870 colleges that are test-optional today have gone that way due to leadership from administrators or admissions deans. It’s a harsh reality, but as winners at the testing game many faculty are oblivious to the damage done by a test that is statistically redundant and socially discriminatory. It's time to set the record straight.
Faculty members need to know that college admissions remain more art than science, As documented in my new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, our best statistical models predicting first-year college grades explain only about 30 percent of what’s going on, leaving 70 percent of what matters unknown. In those models, the academic variable carrying the most weight is always high school grades, while the unique statistical contribution of test scores is marginal: for example, at Johns Hopkins it adds two percentage points; at the University of Georgia one percent; and at DePaul one percent.
In my book, the president emeritus of the University of California Richard Atkinson and Berkeley statistician Saul Geiser stress, "[i]rrespective of the quality or type of school attended, cumulative grade point average (GPA) in academic subjects in high school has proved to be the best overall predictor of student performance in college. This finding has been confirmed in the great majority of ‘predictive-validity’ studies conducted over the years, including studies conducted by the testing agencies themselves."
When not being "truth-optional" in their public relations spin, even the tests’ sponsors concede that the single variable that most highly correlates with college grades is high school grades earned over four years, not test scores derived from four hours of stress on a Saturday morning.
Rather than leveling the playing field, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT perpetuate social discrimination in the name of academic selectivity. Whereas high school GPA and class rank do not correlate with family income, the SAT and ACT can’t say that. Defenders of the tests say they are fair and the social disparities expressed in scores sadly reflect the unfairness of life, but the reality is that family income, gender, and race predict test scores more powerfully than test scores predict college grades.
As a result, the tests create a costly, anxiety-ridden and time-consuming distraction from real learning. They undermine the high school curriculum, sending the wrong signal to youth that test prep – which typically costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – will get you further than hard work in class. Would standardized testing have such a powerful and distorting impact on the whole of the K-12 experience if the SAT or ACT were not required by colleges for admissions?
Faculty need to know that rather than lowering standards, test-optional admissions raise them, and there’s new data to prove it. Wake Forest University went test-optional three years ago, and since then we’ve seen first-year students from the top 10 percent of their high school class jump from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Our student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. Library usage is up, and classroom discussions are reportedly livelier than before.
It's just as Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade predicts in SAT Wars: going test-optional increases the social diversity and academic strength of students at private colleges, and being “don’t ask, don’t tell” at public universities does the same. We expect to see universities that drop the requirement, including most recently Clark University and DePaul University, rewarded with stronger and more diverse applicant pools in the near future. Test-optional enriches the campus experience. So what would it take to end this farce?
Charles Murray, a contributor to SAT Wars, believes that action by top colleges such as Harvard or Stanford would push us past the tipping point. "If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years." He adds, "Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story … They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions."
The aforementioned dean asked me to send a copy of SAT Wars for an overdue discussion amongst faculty at that prominent institution. With data from Wake Forest and other schools that have removed the requirement on the table, it’s time for professors at America’s most prestigious colleges to set the myths aside and take their position of academic leadership seriously. It’s time to do your own research, hold a discussion, contribute to the national debate, and vote. Don’t be part of the problem when you hold the solution in your hands.