• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Test Optional

It's nice to see the Ivies start to catch up to community colleges.

August 24, 2020

Due to multiple cancellations of SAT and ACT testing opportunities, many selective colleges and universities are going test optional this year.

Brookdale has been test optional since 1967. It’s gratifying to see lagging sectors start to catch up to us.

Most community colleges don’t require the SAT or ACT. (I say “most” even though I’ve never heard of a single one that does, just on the off chance that there’s one somewhere.) We’ll use SAT or ACT scores for placement purposes in math and English; if a student scores 530 or higher on the math, or 480 or higher on the verbal section, they’re placed directly into college-level courses. It replaces the placement exam we normally use. But students don’t have to take the SAT or ACT at all, and many don’t, or at least don’t submit scores.

The test-optional approach makes sense in this context. Community colleges have open admissions built into their missions. They’re the on-ramps to higher education. As long as you have a high school diploma or an approved substitute (such as a GED), you can attend. We’ve had students use Brookdale as a bridge between the University of Chicago and Columbia University (true!), and we’ve had students use Brookdale as a chance to redeem a checkered or spotty high school career. Rather than trying to predict success, we give everyone a shot and let them show what they can do.

Admittedly, the existence of placement exams stands partially in tension with that statement. We’re reducing the cost of that tension somewhat with more widespread use of corequisite remediation, though, and relying more on high school GPA than on standardized tests. As predictors, single-day tests just aren’t as reliable as years of documented performance.

The key difference is that the point of placement is not to exclude or select. It’s to set students up to succeed. We know if we get it right by the success, or lack of success, that the students have.

For selective colleges, the point of the admissions process is to decide whom to exclude. That typically involves going well beyond the level of assessing whether students are capable of doing the work. That’s probably one reason that grade inflation is much more common at selective colleges than at community colleges.

Getting rid of standardized tests won’t change that. If Elite U has to admit 10,000 students to fill 3,000 seats, and it averages 35,000 applicants per year, jettisoning the SAT won’t suddenly make the process more egalitarian. It will simply force the admissions folks at Elite U to find other ways to winnow down the pile. Presumably, that would mean more emphasis on high school transcripts and extracurriculars. The degree to which that’s “fairer” is a matter of judgment.

I’ve read that some elite schools figured out years ago that going test optional actually raised their average test scores, and therefore the schools’ competitive ranking. It makes sense when you look at it from a student’s perspective. If I’m applying with a strong transcript and good extracurriculars but middling SAT scores, I’m better off not submitting those scores. If I’m applying with a strong transcript and middling extracurriculars but excellent SAT scores, I’m better off submitting them. If the stronger scores are submitted and the weaker ones aren’t, then the “average” miraculously moves up. It’s a neat statistical trick.

That’s why we just bought The Girl a book of practice SAT tests. I don’t know if the test will even be administered any time soon, but she’s entering her junior year of high school, and she’s wildly smart. If she gets the chance, I expect that she’ll crush the exam, and I want her to have the best opportunities she can. She asked me how I square that with my general sense that standardized tests aren’t great. I responded that we live in the world. Sometimes you play the hand you’re dealt. And on a moral level, I have a hard time explaining why someone who went to a high school that could afford a crew team, or whose dad attended Elite U a generation before, is more deserving than someone who reads and writes uncommonly well. As long as we have legacy admissions and boutique sports, I have a hard time getting too upset about students showing strong academic talent.

The real issue with standardized tests isn’t so much the tests themselves -- although I think there are far too many of them, especially in K-12 -- but the uses to which they’re put. As long as we define excellence through exclusivity, any sorting mechanism will be somewhat arbitrary. The Brookdales of the world offer a different option: let students show their ability through actual college performance. Here’s hoping it catches on.


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