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.
Is there a college president out there who truly believes current ranking schemes are properly serving the educational needs of students and the espoused values of institutions? Are there presidents who think their institutions have benefited from using deep discounting to achieve status and rank? Is the mission of colleges to maximize net revenue, rank, status and prestige, or to provide quality educational opportunities to those who can benefit from the experience? Do our admission practices reflect and encourage the kinds of values and traits that educators are entrusted to foster in students?
Questions such as these have emerged from the research of dedicated educators and scholars and in reaction to recent reports of colleges falsifying data in order to improve rank. But while the consideration of such questions may encourage moral reasoning among college presidents, it does not necessarily lead them to act accordingly.
My own limited experiment in trying to foster movement beyond the pernicious influence of commercial rankings suggests that college presidents may act more responsibly if there is perceived opportunity in doing so, and that such courageous actions can make a difference.
Where one stands on this issue, however, is often influenced by where one sits – particularly with respect to the rankings. When news spread that a group of colleges had signed a letter pledging to boycott U.S. News & World Report college rankings, I received calls from two presidents at highly selective colleges saying they wanted to sign the letter but feared their trustees would not go along. Two Ivy League college officials also reported that while their presidents were reluctant to sign ultimatums, they agreed with the letter’s sentiments and would abide by its prescriptions by not cooperating with U.S. News.
Recent circumstances indicate that the U.S. News rankings enterprise is struggling, and it is increasingly relying on colleges to prop it up. The precipitous drop in reputational survey response among colleges has contributed to increasing skepticism about the rankings; the proliferation of other ranking schemes seems to be diluting the importance of any one; decreasing interest in rankings among parents and students affect magazine sales and website traffic. But there is money to be made from colleges using the U.S. News brand to advertise their rank! Troublingly, more than 70 percent of college admission representatives recently surveyed reported that their colleges use their U.S. News rank for marketing purposes despite an 80 percent agreement that rankings are misleading! Colleges that have instead decided to say no to U.S. News report that taking the educational high road is improving their educational stature: their stance on the rankings matters more than their standing in the rankings.
So, there is a different and encouraging narrative -- one supported by foundations, colleges and organizations. This path provides alternatives to the alarming reports of questionable behavior and poor educational returns associated with driving under the influence of the rankings. Here is a significant opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.
Below is a list of things college presidents can do to help steer our country to a better understanding and demonstration of educational quality than that represented by rankings.
Join other college leaders by pledging to sign the letter that first circulated a few years ago.
Agree to follow the actions prescribed in the letter: Do not complete reputation surveys, and do not use rank to promote your institution.
Help your trustees consider the educational impact of commercial rankings and the leadership opportunities for your institution to move beyond the influence of rankings.
Participate in evolving collaborative efforts to identify and deliver meaningful college information and helpful college selection guidance.
Someone once said, 'If we can’t trust our college and university leaders to do the right thing, then who can we trust?" A good friend once said, “Education is the crucible of hope.” The high level of public cynicism about higher education can and should be addressed by college presidents acting together to move beyond the influence of commercial rankings. Here is an opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.
I was in New Hampshire at the kickoff for the FIRST Robotics competition – an international program for middle and high school students – a few weeks ago when a mentor of a team from California approached me with a look of dismay. He asked me how to go about getting FIRST recognized as an Advanced Placement class. He said that he has a hard time recruiting team members for the FIRST team because the students are concerned it will take too much time away from their AP courses.
"They feel they need to take more AP classes so they can get into the college of their choice."
That comment broke my heart but it also got me thinking. While college admissions officers, high school counselors, and parents will all advise students that quality is more important than quantity, what do the students see? They see other students who loaded up on AP classes and a million other activities get admitted to selective colleges. And there is the disconnect.
There is no doubt that the admissions process at a selective college can seem opaque and unpredictable. The reason is that there are many more excellent candidates than spaces at those colleges. And so there are many students who do all the right things and still don’t get into their top choices.
And while this is not unlike what they will experience in the job market, as students, this is likely the first time that they will face a situation where there aren’t clear ways to get their desired outcome. You can’t just do X and get Y.
It doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t do X, because the same things that make you a good candidate for a place like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be a great preparation for your career and life. Unfortunately, instead of simply doing X and accepting the uncertainty, many students wind up doing X plus X plus X in the hopes that that will improve their chances.
This is human nature, of course, but there are things we can all do to make the situation better. Those who guide students — parents and counselors — must help them understand the uncertainty, and support them in doing what is best for them. And colleges must communicate as clearly as they can how their processes work and ensure that their actions are consistent with their words and encourage good educational behavior.
Indeed, there is no doubt that the college’s role is extremely powerful in shaping student behavior. There are essentially three ways that we signal students; in ascending order of effect, they are: formal communications, informal communications, and actions.
Generally, I think colleges do a great job with formal communications. In brochures and websites we all talk about quality over quantity, about how we care more about engagement than volume. At MIT, we try to be transparent when it comes to the criteria that we use to select students. On our website we publish a lot of unedited commentary from faculty, staff, and current students so we can give prospective students a look at how and why we do things, allowing them to enter the conversation, ask questions, and gain some clarity.
Informal communications are a bit harder to manage, but are perhaps more important. Colleges send signals to students in ways we may not realize. At MIT, we’ve redesigned our application because we realized that we were sending inadvertent messages of expecting too much; indeed, expecting things we really aren’t expecting. We reduced the number of spaces where students list their activities from 10 to 5, because no matter how many spaces you have, students feel as if they have to fill them up. Similarly, where we ask applicants to list their AP, IB or Cambridge GCSE classes, we now display only three spaces (students can click a button to add more if they wish).
What we ask about on our application also sends a message as to what we care about. In the very first essay question on our application we ask students what they do for fun. And we remind students that this is not a trick question. Indeed, in the instructions to our application, we say the following: "The truth is that we’re looking for balance. MIT is an intense educational experience — one that requires regular down-time to digest and process. The ability to prioritize and balance becomes very important. We’d like to hear about the ways you’ve embraced this in high school, because it’s a great (and necessary) skill for thriving here."
Finally, our actions speak the loudest. If we tell students that it’s O.K. to back off on their classes to make room for other activities, or simply to make room for balance and reflection, we must make decisions that align with those statements. But when students see others who chose quantity over quality gaining admission, this becomes their guide.
But here is the thing: while it is true that some students have the bandwidth to do a lot and be successful, it is never the quantity of classes or activities that was the deciding factor in a college’s decision to admit them. And we should remember that for most students, loading up will simply lead to burnout and decreased performance.
There’s no doubt that we want students who have achieved good grades in a rigorous curriculum, but it doesn’t mean they need to take every rigorous class. Calculus, advanced science? Yes, for sure (for MIT). Every advanced science class? Not necessary. Human geography, psychology, and studio art? Again, only if you enjoy these subjects and the challenge they provide. They’re not prerequisites, and they don’t add to any imaginary tally of APs.
A residential college experience is about the education of the whole person. And so the essence of what colleges want is for students to be engaged in whatever they are doing. We don’t want students who do things because they have to, or because they think it will look good on their résumé. We want students to do things because they find true enjoyment and personal growth from them. That’s the way that young people — and, for that matter, old people and middle-aged people — thrive.
I understand why those students from California might see participation in FIRST as a risk. It is a great example of an activity where you put in a huge amount of time and effort and you may not succeed with anything tangible. Your robot may not work and you will not receive a grade. But that risk is a telling one. It shows an understanding that it is the experience and not the trophy that is the reward.
Rather than making FIRST an AP class, let’s recognize that activities such as FIRST have as much, if not more, value than an AP class. And everyone involved needs to help give students the confidence to pursue them.
Stuart Schmill is dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.