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Bill Maxwell

Stressful tests don't tell whole story

Each year, thousands of high school students stress out as they prepare to take the SAT or ACT tests to get into college.

Many researchers suggest that the singular importance placed on these tests has produced a culture of questionable meritocracy and unfairly blocked thousands of otherwise deserving students from entering the schools of their choice.

Primarily for these reasons, the National Association for College Admission Counseling formed a 21-member blue ribbon panel last year to examine issues surrounding standardized testing and evaluate how schools can make the best use of entrance exams. Led by William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, the panelists presented their findings Friday in Seattle at the organization's annual convention.

In its 58-page report, NACAC did not outright condemn admissions exams. But it delivered its toughest assessment ever and addressed one of the most controversial issues in higher education. It concluded that colleges and other interested organizations put too much importance on the tests and should move toward a better mix of admission exams more reflective of high school curricula and what students actually learn.

More than 280 four-year colleges across the nation have stopped requiring the exams for admission. Fitzsimmons and others contend that the College Board's Advanced Placement tests and the International Baccalaureate exams are more closely related to what goes on in high school classrooms than the SAT and ACT.

A powerful argument for using grade-point averages, high school curricula and AP and IB exams is that their use encourages better teaching and entices students to assume more responsibility for their learning.

Panelists urged colleges to constantly monitor their testing requirements and earnestly consider the socioeconomic inequities among students. Many students, for example, cannot afford expensive test-prep classes to help boost their scores. The commission also urged colleges to stop using minimum scores for merit scholarships.

"We want to get the word out more clearly than before, that tests should not be used in a rigid way," Fitzsimmons told journalists. "A couple of decades ago, people associated testing results with so-called ability. We have come to a clearer understanding that those scores have more to do with opportunities.

"Society likes to think that the SAT measures people's ability or merit. But no one in college admissions who visits the range of secondary schools we visit, and goes to the communities we visit — where you see the contrast between opportunities and fancy suburbs and some of the high schools that aren't so fancy — can come away thinking that standardized tests can be a measure of someone's true worth or ability."

A pernicious outcome of relying on standardized testing, many counselors argue, is that it has warped secondary education, turning it into a client factory for the billion-dollar test-prep industry that advertises itself as the panacea for students to ace the exams. U.S. News & World Report's use of the scores to rank the nation's colleges and universities also shapes high school teaching and college admissions priorities.

Even before NACAC launched its study last year, however, many schools, including Smith College, Lawrence University, Wake Forest and Mount Holyoke, had stopped requiring the SAT and ACT, making the tests optional. NACAC has recommended that more schools consider making the tests optional.

Some panelists, such as Randall Deike, vice president for enrollment at Case Western Reserve University, believe the SAT and ACT are reliable tools that help admissions officers, especially at large schools. He argues that the tests provide significant statistical information that predicts student success, and they should not be discounted. For one thing, he said, the exams offer some protection against grade inflation.

Still, most panelists agreed that the nation's colleges and universities should re-examine their reliance on the tests as the best measure of students' worth.

The observations of Steve Syverson, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence University, reflect the hard reality of the iconic reach of the SAT and ACT in higher education.

"We're all just making assumptions about these tests," Syverson said. "We've all grown up with it. It's embedded in the culture. If you really ask around the country, how many admissions officers can tell you at their institution what the predictive validity of the test is? What does it add to our understanding? What do tests help you predict? You'd find a lot of them equate these tests with intelligence. It's not an intelligence test."

If nothing else, NACAC's report has given the nation's colleges and universities more reason to consider making the SAT and the ACT optional for admission.

Stressful tests don't tell whole story 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 2:55pm]

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