After the SAT Report, What Next?

At admissions officers' meeting, study suggesting more skepticism of standardized tests is widely praised. Authors debate next steps while more colleges show interest in going test-optional.
September 29, 2008

Sometimes, when a panel issues a special report on an important topic, it falls to those who wrote the report to bring along the skeptical rank and file, to help those who haven’t spent a year or more studying the issues understand why some change or another is needed.

At the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling this weekend in Seattle, it seemed that the rank and file was more than ready for a special commission’s report calling for a rethinking of standardized testing in admissions. The session where the panel was to explain its views had to be moved to a larger ballroom when hundreds of admissions officers were unable to fit in the original room. But they weren’t coming to the session to question the panel’s suggestion that many colleges don’t need standardized testing. Many of those who spoke appeared already to be sold on the idea. Indeed, with the College Board and ACT not directly challenging the commission in its open forum, it fell to some committee members to say reasonably nice things about the SAT.

The greatest challenge to the commission’s thinking at the open forum came from those who questioned the commission’s view that much of the problem with the SAT and ACT isn’t the tests themselves, but how they are misused and the commercialization they encourage. While not disputing that the tests are misused, some would have gone further.

It’s “not just abuse,” said Susan Tree, a guidance counselor from Pennsylvania who is a leader in the association. “There are bad tests.” To applause, she cited “fundamental flaws in a test that has become one that continues to correlate more highly with family income and educational background than academic promise.”

And to more applause from the gathering of both college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors, she said she wanted to see “a vision for moving beyond an instrument that we keep tweaking and apologizing for.”

Others who spoke at the forum and elsewhere at the meeting generally agreed. Some focused broadly on the SAT, while others had specific complaints -- fees charged by the College Board, a new College Board policy making it easier for students to take the SAT repeatedly without reporting that to colleges, lack of oversight of the College Board. (While the NACAC commission’s recommendations were put forth to apply equally to the SAT and ACT, most of the anti-testing rhetoric at the meeting was directed at the SAT and the College Board, not the ACT.)

The NACAC panel didn’t call for the elimination of the SAT or ACT. Rather, it said that colleges shouldn’t use the tests unless they have conducted validity studies to be certain that the tests accurately predict what they claim to for a given college, and that they add important value to the admissions process. The NACAC panel said that these should be individual college studies, not those produced by the testing companies.

Some colleges -- especially those contemplating changes in admissions policies -- do in-depth studies of the validity of various requirements. But many don’t. While admissions officers were not lining up to be quoted saying that they require the SAT without institution-specific data that it means anything, many said privately that their institutions in fact lacked any solid evidence -- based on experiences at their institutions -- of the test’s value for their admissions processes. When asked why they require the SAT without evidence, the most common answers were “because we’ve done it that way for a long time” and “because the most prestigious colleges do it.”

Several admissions deans at institutions that require tests said that the NACAC commission’s recommendations showed a perfect understanding of the internal politics of colleges. Had the commission explicitly called for eliminating admissions testing, they said, the recommendation would have been controversial enough that skeptical presidents might not have gone along.

But it would be hard for a president to tell an admissions office not to conduct validity studies of a test used in the admissions process. And if, as these deans suspect, the NACAC panel was correct that the studies will show, at many institutions, little value for the SAT, the case for dropping the requirement will be much stronger, and will still have the blessing of the national association of admissions officers.

Another key part of the way the recommendations are framed is that they call for weighing the value of the tests against the negative consequences of the industry and culture that have grown up around them. Philip A. Ballinger, director of admissions at the University of Washington and a NACAC panel member, said that one possibility is that validity studies find that the SAT or ACT add something to the admissions process, but it might not be enough to justify their downsides.

“One of the key issues is what the SAT and ACT have become culturally -- they have become buckets of all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the test,” he said.

They are “attached to rankings,” and they are “driving policy decisions at universities,” he said. While validity studies at Washington have shown the tests to have some predictive value, he said, that may not be enough to justify them. The question is to look at the “wider balance” of the tests. “Is it of sufficient value to outweigh the other effects?”

It’s also possible, many said, that testing won’t go away, but that the emphasis on the SAT will.

William Fitzsimmons, dean of admission and financial aid at Harvard University and chair of the NACAC panel, said that his institution was “a long way from knowing whether we’ll make any change.” But he noted that other tests -- the SAT subject tests, Advanced Placement, and the International Baccalaureate test are examples -- also need to be considered, and may be superior to the SAT.

“The more curriculum-based the test, the better a predictor the test is at Harvard,” he said. And while he said he could see change over time, he said he had a hard time imagining Harvard as “test optional," but could imagine it requiring different tests.

That Fitzsimmons led the panel was also seen as critical by many admissions deans. Normally NACAC meetings feature a certain amount of Crimson envy, with college officials grousing about how Harvard gets all the media attention and has the endowment to attract the best students. But at this meeting, deans repeatedly praised Fitzsimmons for taking the lead and several said that -- academe being what it is -- the same report led by a dean of an institution that admitted more than 10 percent of applicants just wouldn’t have had the same credibility with presidents and trustees.

At a press briefing on the report, Fitzsimmons drew attention to a broader agenda panel members see for NACAC that could also change the dynamics of the testing industry. NACAC should assume the role, he said, of being a monitor and “whistle blower” about testing and related industries. He noted that much of the research and training about the use of tests has traditionally come from the testing companies that benefit from the tests’ use. If NACAC becomes a “third party” -- and an independent source of information -- educators and the public could have more reliable information.

One example of that is a study currently taking place by NACAC on the test-prep industry. The NACAC report notes that the average gains for students who take SAT courses are actually smaller than many people believe. But at the same time, Fitzsimmons said he was concerned that, on the high end of these services, it is possible that the gains are large. It’s important to find out and to make that information public, he said.

He returned to this theme in the public forum on the report, talking about NACAC becoming “a watchdog agency,” and filling “a leadership void” on testing issues -- and his call for the organization to move in that direction appeared to have strong support from the rank and file.

If NACAC does move in that direction, some said that it may also become more critical of the many businesses that benefit from the desire of so many students to boost their SAT scores. Even as the NACAC panel was calling for more scrutiny of these services, all the big players were visible in the association’s exhibit hall.

Mary Lee Hoganson, a retired school counselor and past president of NACAC, said that “we haven’t looked carefully enough at all of the commercialization.” She recalled that when groups like Princeton Review and Kaplan first started to buy space in the association’s exhibit hall, “there was a member outcry,” but now they are joined by many other companies. That “we’ve become desensitized to this shows how timely” the report is in raising questions about the testing industry. And the questions come in the wake of scrutiny by various government agencies into other corporate links to higher education, especially in financial aid.

On the question of the SAT itself, there was much evidence that some colleges are planning reviews or have already started. Jeff Rickey, dean of admissions and financial aid at Earlham College and a member of the NACAC panel, said that Earlham was planning a review over the next year of its testing requirement. At a session on colleges that have already dropped admissions testing, about 20 hands shot up when the audience was asked how many of their institutions were currently looking at dropping the SAT.

While the SAT report outlined educational and philosophical reasons for subjecting testing requirements to more scrutiny, many admissions deans here were talking about practical issues -- such as what happens when you drop a testing requirement. There presentations on this topic at the meeting were uniformly positive.

Ann B. McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross, said that she was terrified about a possible backlash when she woke up the morning of her institution’s announcement that it was going test-optional. Response was overwhelmingly positive, she said. She received thank you notes from guidance counselors. Application numbers went up, along with academic quality. And the applicant pool is more diverse racially and socioeconomically.

A change she’s especially pleased with is that she finds herself and her admissions colleagues talking more with prospective students about the college’s curriculum and approach to learning and less time on questions that she said used to dominate. “I think the discussion has gone beyond, 'What are your average test scores?’ ”

Jane Dane, dean of enrollment management at Salisbury University, said her experience suggests that public universities can move test-optional. (Most of the movement among competitive colleges to drop testing has come from private liberal arts institutions.) Dane spoke about how there are more layers of approval needed in a state university system, but said that the University System of Maryland ended up approving her institution’s shift.

She had been watching the liberal arts colleges but didn’t “see schools of our type” until George Mason University announced a test-optional program. “That was the one that got my attention,” she said. George Mason reports positive numbers still, as does Salisbury. Dane said that her institution -- on the advice of Maryland officials -- gave the no-test option only to applicants with at least a 3.5 grade point average. That won over the faculty and system officials, she said. So far, the key changes are both changes the college wanted: more economic diversity among applicants, and a higher course-completion rate by those who don’t submit test scores than by those who do.

Steve Syverson, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence University and a panel member, said that his institution is in the third admissions cycle without a test requirement, and about 25 percent of students don’t submit. Thus far, academic quality has in no way suffered as a result of the shift. The most meaningful change, he said, is realizing that admissions officers are “liberated” to admit whom they want.

In the past, he said, admissions officers felt pressure to reject some applicants of high quality because of their low SAT scores, which the university didn’t want to count when reporting its averages. Applicants were being rejected even though admissions officers knew they could succeed and add to the college. Syverson called this “a complete misuse” of test – but the sort of misuse that is common at institutions that require tests and care about their rankings (in other words, most of them).

So will many more colleges drop the SAT? One striking thing about the NACAC meeting was that at the sessions on testing, no one came forward to defend the SAT. At the press briefing, Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University and a panel member, said he thought the SAT did add value and he didn’t see his institution moving away from it. But as speaker after speaker talked in various sessions about not needing it, they weren’t challenged.

Ballinger, of the University of Washington, said he expected to see change, but over a period of years – at least for now. Many deans said that they could act if institutions seen as peers act, and that some were starting. Salisbury following George Mason fits that mold. “Let’s say a major flagship or system were to drop the use of the SAT or ACT,” or a nationally known private university, Ballinger speculated. “Change can happen very abruptly.”


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