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Maxwell: An essay instead of a test

Freshman admission to elite colleges and universities has been based on meritocracy, individual ability and achievement of the so-called "best and brightest."

The primary measuring tool has been the standardized test, and the SAT and ACT are the most used. Of course, a lucrative industry charges would-be applicants a lot of money to coach them on subject matter that appears on these tests.

Many educators argue that America is SAT- and -ACT-obsessed. For decades, increasing numbers of admissions officers, professors and others have argued that these tests are not infallible predictors of how well students will perform academically over time. In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling has requested that U.S. colleges and universities re-examine their reliance on the SAT and ACT and expand the use of other admissions tools.

Now, Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is the latest prestigious college to join the trend of expanding how it admits first-year students. Beginning this fall, the college will offer the option of four 2,500-word research essays for admission. The college, whose tuition is $45,730, will provide the prompts and sources for the essays.

Students who earn a B-plus or better will be admitted regardless of high school grades. The SAT and ACT will remain an option, and the school will keep the Common Application that is used by 415 colleges and universities in the United States.

The inclusion of the essay as another route to admission is fitting for Bard, a unique place. While many other institutions bow to the demands of the business community, Bard continues to engage its students in the life of the mind. For that reason, some of the world's foremost scholars and artists consider it an honor to work there because of its devotion to academic freedom and intellectual experimentation.

So why use the research paper as an entrance tool?

In a prepared statement, Leon Botstein, Bard's president of 38 years, explains: "The tradition of high stakes examination, using multiple choice questions, has made the entire apparatus of high school and college entrance examinations bankrupt. Teachers, scientists, and scholars must once again take charge of the way we test. What the Bard Entrance Examination asks is that students study the source materials and write comprehensively in order to show the quality of their reasoning."

He further explained in the New York Times that the move to the admission-by-essay approach is a "kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning." The current system, he said, is "loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning." He said he wants to see the college entrance process return to the "basics" and "common sense."

On its website, the college touts itself as being "a place to think." This is not just a fancy slogan. It is a concept that defines the essence of the college, and a standardized test alone cannot measure how a young person will respond to the intangibles of the school's intellectual engagement.

Botstein argues that while college prepares young people for careers, it also should teach ways to "connect learning and life in a manner that influences everyday life, including earning a living." The research essay, therefore, is an effective way to introduce applicants to Bard's culture and to let them gauge their commitment to the challenges ahead.

What about cheating? How will the college know the essays are the students' own? To use the essay option, Botstein said, students must sign a pledge that the work is theirs and provide a character reference from their school. He told the New York Times that he wants to take the "high road," trusting that students are being honest.

Skeptics and supporters alike will be watching Bard's experiment. No matter how it turns out over time, evidence long has shown that standardized tests are shutting out many otherwise qualified applicants. Why not try the research essay?

Maxwell: An essay instead of a test 10/04/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 4:40pm]
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