Ethical College Admissions: Truth, Whole Truth and Nothing but Truth

Should colleges require applicants to submit every SAT and ACT score they have earned? Jim Jump considers the issues.

December 2, 2019
 
Istockphoto.com/Olivier Le Moal

A recent post on the e-list for the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools caught my attention both as a college counselor and as a connoisseur of ethical dilemmas.

A counselor asked the list for its wisdom and suggestions on how to advise students applying to colleges and universities that require a student to submit all SAT and ACT scores. The counselor expressed his commitment to being ethical, but he also considers policies requiring submission of all scores to be excessive. He wondered how other counselors deal with this issue.

Longtime readers of this column know that we love to hunt for broader questions and underlying issues, and this case is ripe with both. What is the nature of the relationship between applicant and college, and what rights and obligations does each have? Is a college application a curated work of art designed to put the student’s “best foot forward,” or is an applicant, like a witness in court, required to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Who “owns” test scores? Is this a case of moral temptation or an ethical dilemma?

The distinction between moral temptation and ethical dilemma comes from the late ethicist Rushworth Kidder. Moral temptations are things we know are wrong but are tempted to do anyway. Far more common are ethical dilemmas. In simplest terms an ethical dilemma involves a conflict between right and right (or wrong and wrong). In an ethical dilemma there may be a conflict between ethical principles or among varying interpretations or perspectives on what is right.

The counselor’s query qualifies both as an ethical dilemma and as an example of the hypothesis that “it depends” is the answer to every college admissions question. What is “right” in this case depends on your perspective, and which ethical principle you find most compelling.

Let’s begin with the college perspective. One of the universities that has steadfastly required that applicants report the results of all standardized testing administrations is Georgetown University, although when I looked on its website I found no reference to that requirement on the “Information for Applicants” page (it is stated clearly on a different page, “Preparation Process”).

Georgetown and its legendary dean of admission, Charlie Deacon, have resisted admission fads like the Common Application. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect and admire him and know that his old-school stance with regard to how the admissions process should operate is carefully considered and principled. The Georgetown Voice, a student newspaper, recently published an editorial calling for Georgetown to join the test-optional movement. The Georgetown dean assures me that’s not happening during his tenure.

On an unrelated note, the editorial was the second most interesting article in that edition of the Voice. One of the feature articles was a quiz inviting readers to build their favorite pizza for insight into which 19th-century German philosopher they resemble. I ended up resembling Kant, a good thing, because back in graduate school one of my professors pointed out my Kantian tendencies, and a not-so-good thing in that Kant was nothing if not predictable.

Georgetown’s requirement that applicants submit all test scores in grounded in truth and transparency, one of the foundational principles in the National Association for College Admission Counseling Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. Georgetown’s take on testing is that having access to all scores provides more complete and accurate information about a student. According to Deacon, “Looking at all scores gives us more information including the pattern of scores and also helps identify those who take it many times, usually those doing test prep. If you take the SAT five times and score 600-650 on verbal on four of them but 750 on one, that is useful information compared with allowing the student to cherry-pick their best score.”

The broader justification for Georgetown’s position is captured in another Deacon quote -- “Your record is your record and you should stand by it.” That position sees test scores as comparable to grades. A student doesn’t have the right to pick and choose which grades they will send. There are, of course, schools that allow students to retake courses and replace low grades on the transcript, but I have always believed that a transcript should be an unedited record of a student’s performance. I must confess that I like the “honesty is the best policy” approach to applying to college -- and to life, for that matter.

It is certainly in Georgetown’s interest to see all of a student’s test scores, but does that therefore impose an obligation on the student to provide those scores? That is not as clear to me. A student is required to tell the truth and nothing but the truth on an application, but what about the whole truth?

Any college application is at least partly a curated document, with the student making choices about what information to provide to best tell their story. For students who have grown up in a social media world, the line between who they are and who they want others to believe they are may long ago have been muddied. Students aren’t expected to list and account for every activity they’ve ever attempted, just those they care about most. They are not required to report every time they’ve received detention for being late to class. The essay is increasingly the product of significant editing and coaching.

So are test scores more like grades or like other pieces of the application? The position held by Georgetown and other institutions that require all scores is a distinct minority view (which, of course, doesn’t make it wrong). Students have always had the ability to determine which ACT administrations to send scores for, and Score Choice gives SAT takers the ability to curate their score report. I have been told that most application management software shows only a student’s best scores.

There are two broader questions here. The first is who owns test scores. It is hard to come up with any answer other than the student. The student is the one who takes the test and pays for the test (that might be the parent) and therefore has the right to determine what scores to send where. Should a student be required to report a test score from a test taken as a practice in the sophomore year or on a date when he or she is sick? It might be different if colleges paid for testing, or at least the cost of sending score reports. I don’t see any colleges volunteering to do that.

The other big question is how hard applying to college should be. Georgetown’s decision to retain its own application and its position on scores are part of a broader philosophical view that many of the changes in the application process are designed to make applying to college easier, not necessarily better. Should applying to college be, in the words of Ike and Tina Turner in their rendition of “Proud Mary,” “nice and easy,” or should it be a Goldilocks process, not too easy, not too hard, but just right?

As a college counselor, it is my obligation to give my student my best advice. I don’t believe the student has an ethical obligation to provide all scores, but I would recommend they do so. Wanting all test scores may be excessive, but it’s not unreasonable. I don’t believe in advising students to game the system, and I believe that ultimately we have to be able to trust each other. It that makes me naïve, I can live with that.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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