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March 20, 2009

The End Of Merit-Based Admission

By Mary Grabar

Students applying for college admission now face a new reality---the SAT is increasingly optional at our colleges and universities. The test-optional movement, pioneered by FairTest, a political advocacy group supported by George Soros and the Woods Fund---now list 815 schools that do not require SAT scores. That number may seem impressive, but it includes institutions that arguably should not be dependent on SAT scores at all, such as culinary institutes, seminaries and art schools.

Surprisingly, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) has joined the critics of the SAT. Its September 2008 report, lauded by the New York Times and Inside Higher Education, encouraged "institutions to consider dropping the admission test requirements if it is determined that the predictive utility of the test or the admission policies of the institution (such as open access) support that decision and if the institution believes that standardized test results would not be necessary for other reasons such as course placement, advising, or research" (italics in original).

If that sounds like a less than full-throated endorsement of the anti-testers, the reluctance to speak plainly is understandable. The SAT and ACT, the group now says, had been "interpreted by some as indications of the mental capacity of the individual test-taker as well as of the innate capabilities of ethnic groups." Yet, when referring back to the SAT's early years, they acknowledged its value as a tool for measuring the "academic potential of seniors at public high schools from all over the country who had not been specifically prepared" for admission to the nation's top colleges.

Today, these admissions professionals promote test optional policies as beneficial to students, particularly to lower-scoring blacks and Hispanics. Indeed they are. Testing reveals lack of college-readiness, and as FairTest's long career has demonstrated, the easiest way to overcome (or rather circumvent) inadequacy is to eliminate the tests that show it. So inevitably, double-talk and hypocrisy creep into the rhetoric of the test-optional movement. Everybody knows that dropping standards is the goal of the test-optional movement, but almost no one is willing to say so out loud.

Luckily for the cause, making test optional holds a carrot out to colleges struggling to climb in the U.S. News rankings. Since only the better scorers on the SAT are likely to report results to colleges, the average scores tend to rise---as they have at 27 of the 28 top-one hundred schools listed by U.S. News. Last May, Jonathan Epstein of the education consultancy Maguire Associates noted the 100-150 point discrepancy between submitters and non-submitters of SAT scores. There's a cost to this. The inflated scores could discourage qualified students from applying. .

The College Board's own 2008 study concludes that a combination of high school grade point averages and SAT scores are the best predictors of first-year grade point average. Pamela Horne, Dean of Admissions at Purdue University, agrees, particularly for institutions like her land-grant university. Such tests are important, given the reluctance by most high schools to assign class rank and the willingness of teachers to assign inflated grades. "Nothing is perfect," she says, but "the SAT and ACT are the most tested tests in the world." The tests are scrutinized for bias on millions of students and offer the best predictors of college success for the widest range of students.

The NACAC report nevertheless refers to the "bias" of these tests and offers alternatives, like the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. But Horne says that students taking these tests represent a thin "high-achieving slice." She notes that an increasingly large and diverse student body---including those who may not have access to advanced classes or selective international schools-- now takes the SAT and ACT. Nor do state assessment tests, which vary from state to state and from year to year, offer a viable alternative.

On the issue of grade point averages, the NACAC Commission, in offering an alternative, notes that GPA is generally "the most reliable predictor of first-year academic performance in college." Yet within the same paragraph the authors admit that the varying quality of high schools makes GPA-based assessments difficult. Horne, who says that she has seen students with a 3.4 GPA from the bottom half of their class, agrees that GPA-based assessments are difficult. The reality of grade inflation is borne out by a study of the Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement that showed a discrepancy sometimes of over 50% between students earning A's in their subjects, but failing the state subject tests in 2007.

The teachers at such under-performing schools may have different standards or be pressured to assign high grades to their top-achieving students. Subjective factors can come into play. For example, women, who now make up about 60% of the college student body, on the average have better study habits and behavior than men, which can earn them higher grades.

Objectors to the standardized tests clearly seem more concerned with outcomes than with fairness. By all indications, political motives drive the assault on the tests designed to make college admissions decisions as fair as they can be.

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Mary Grabar is an English professor in Atlanta.




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