NACAC Presentation 2004: Putting Testing in Its Place

Here’s the introduction I made to the audience at my panel this last week in Milwaukee. I was pleased that Bill Hiss’s very solid report on 20 years of Bates’s testing optional policy was not only excellently presented but well-received. I think it will cause a lot of discussion. It also has made the papers, namely USAToday and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Diane Anci also gave a report from Mt. Holyoke on the state of their Mellon-sponsored study, and Jon Reider did an excellent job “calling out” to deans who should have been at the presentation and been part of the discussion about what SATs are doing to American education. Below is the introduction I gave to that session, which was called “Common Sense in College Admission: Putting Testing in Its Place.”

NACAC Presentation Introduction

When I first began teaching high school English in the 1980s I was struck by the need to take class time to drill for the SATs. We didn’t spend that much time on it, but it still meant we spent less time actually reading, writing, and discussing literature in favor of mindless drilling about analogies and testing tricks. I knew I wasn’t really educating my students during those moments but then it seemed a minor annoyance.

Twenty years later, this minor annoyance has become a major problem, not just in college admission but also in education at every level. Front page stories in the Chicago Tribune in the last few months document how high schools are jettisoning whole semesters of history and lab science in order to drill students for the standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. At the college application level, we all know the massive amounts of time and money spent on test preparation. Our students often worry more about getting 20 more points on their math score than about their actual schoolwork. No matter how much teachers and college representatives say that the transcript is the most important factor in a college application, no one really believes it when the scores come out. Among those who can’t or don’t know they can “game” the tests, which of course includes most students of color and the economically disadvantaged, there’s no help at all.

When I began my admission career at Amherst, I was a true believer in standardized testing. I hadn’t had any real training in score interpretation beyond “high equals good, low equals bad.” Yet despite the supposed incontrovertibility of the numbers, we were always willing to ignore them if they proved inconvenient. We treated them based on our needs of the moment, not on their supposedly inerrant ability to make true statements about students’ capabilities or potential. So I began to wonder what we really needed the tests for and, increasingly, I couldn’t come up with a good answer.

Now, even as our national education system tries to accommodate and deal with learning differences; as we try to reform the mechanistic, factory-based model of education that has predominated in American education for so many years; and as we try to expand educational opportunities for every sector of American society meaningfully and substantively, we seem to be placing even more faith in a method of measurement that has its roots in the very mechanization and regimentation we are trying to leave behind. Standardized tests, as our presenters will demonstrate, actually tell us very little, yet they cost us all a great deal.

Far from being merely disinterested records of student knowledge, aptitude, or progress, the tests and their fetishization have actually altered the ways our children are being taught, and not for the better. In fact they are helping to destroy the very things that colleges and universities say they desire: independent thinking, curiosity, originality, and willingness to take risks. The tail wags the dog, in other words, and the dog learns to stay in the doghouse.

Consequently, we need to refocus our thinking about the use of testing in college admission. We need to decide if the minimal information it gives us is worth the damage it does to American education. We need to remember that we do not live in a vacuum but on a continuum of educational progress. Our faith in the numbers, bolstered by relentless and independently unverified testing company advertising and research, often trumps our common sense as we look at real live student applications. I’m sure every admission officer in this room has grieved over a terrific student who was a perfect match for his or her institution but whose scores were just a little too low. Imagine our frustration on the high school side, when we hear that! And yet we so seldom think about WHY or WHETHER those numbers should so powerfully outweigh our own educated, humane observations and insights.

One of the most discouraging moments I’ve had recently was at an IACAC panel at which the University of Illinois and other state schools discussed how and whether they would adopt the new SAT. They mentioned that they’d showed the test to some of their English and rhetoric teachers who’d said it seemed fine to them. I asked the panel members, “In all your discussion, did anyone talk about how adopting this test would affect the teaching of writing in high schools?” A long silence ensued until a U of I admission officer finally asked, “Why would we do that?” Well, I thought, why WOULDN’T you? Clearly, their discussion had been about how the test would affect the University’s ability to process student applications, not about the long-term effect adopting it would have on the students the University will eventually serve. This is an abdication of our responsibility as educators and public servants.

As we think about the role of standardized testing in college admission, we should ask ourselves, “Do these numbers really tell us enough to ignore the continued devaluation of American education they foster?”

Change is already underway. Colleges like Hamilton, Wheaton, Franklin and Marshall, Dickinson, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Pitzer, Mt. Holyoke, Bates, and even state institutions like the University of Iowa have adopted test-optional or what I call “mixed-use” policies, breaking away from the testing lockstep, and providing workable models that emphasize actual student performance, not magical numbers. In fact, the organization Fair Test can tell us about hundreds of schools where testing is less important than real student achievement.

Wheaton, Dickinson, Sarah Lawrence, and Bates, for example, simply make submission of testing optional. Franklin and Marshall and Pitzer exempt students in the top ten percent of their high school classes or those in non-ranking schools with a 3.5 or 3.6 out of a 4.0 GPA from submitting scores. Middlebury and Hamilton, while requiring testing, offer several ways to satisfy the requirement that don’t depend exclusively on SAT or ACT scores. The University of Iowa guarantees admission to applicants in the top 50 percent of their Iowa high schools and the top 30 percent of out of state high schools. All of these methods support the idea of educating, not simply processing, students, encouraging high schools to teach and students to learn. They discourage the predominance of what Linda McNeil calls “school knowledge,” which “serves the credentialing function of the school but does not provide students with the rich knowledge of the subject fields nor with the opportunities to build their own understandings of the subject.”

A more universal adoption of these methods would enable high schools and students to do more of what they should be doing instead of being forced to lie on the Procrustean bed of standardized testing as their more interesting limbs are hacked off to fit it. Many will say that following these ideas, especially at larger institutions, would be expensive and unwieldy. To a certain extent this is true, but when the stakes are high enough it can and should be done. When the University of Michigan was compelled by the Supreme Court to change its undergraduate admission policies, it added essays and hired nearly 20 new readers for its application.

Our presenters today will demonstrate that thinking differently about standardized testing can enhance the college admission process and, by extension, American education. Based on their own research and experience, they will discuss how little testing truly brings to the admission process and challenge us to reevaluate our own roles as teachers, counselors, and admission officers.

Jon Reider, currently Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School is also a former long-time professor and admission officer at Stanford University. He will speak more about this issue from the high school side.

Diane Anci, Dean of Admission at Mt. Holyoke College, will discuss preliminary findings of a Mellon study being conducted at Mt. Holyoke regarding testing and its role in admission.

Finally, Bill Hiss, dean of admission and financial aid at Bates College for 22 years and currently Vice President for External Affairs there, will present findings summarizing twenty years of Bates’s testing optional policy.