Speeches, Letters, and Articles
"Skip the Test, Betray the Cause"
New York Times, September 18, 2006
By Colin S. Diver
I sometimes think I should write a handbook for college admission officials titled ''How to Play the U.S. News & World Report Ranking Game, and Win!'' I would devote the first chapter to a tactic called ''SAT optional.''
The idea is simple: tell applicants that they can choose whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Predictably, those applicants with low scores or those who know that they score poorly on standardized aptitude tests will not submit. Those with high scores will submit. When the college computes the mean SAT or ACT score of its enrolled students, voilà! its average will have risen. And so too, it can fondly hope, will its status in the annual U.S. News & World Report's college rankings.
My college requires applicants to submit their test scores, and it refuses to cooperate with the rankings. But among our peers, more and more institutions are adopting the SAT-optional strategy. This is not surprising. Once a few colleges adopt the tactic, their competitors feel pressure to follow suit, lest they suffer a drop in rank. And so a new front opens in the admissions arms race.
Those institutions that have adopted the SAT-optional strategy rationalize their decision by claiming that standardized tests are faulty measures of academic ability. The problem is that every indicator of academic ability used by college admission officers is imperfect.
Consider high school grade point averages. We all know brilliant students with low averages because they are bored by unchallenging classes. And conversely, these days a high grade point average is as likely to reveal rampant grade inflation as individual brilliance.
Likewise, college essays and even graded high school papers may say more about the writing abilities of parents or professional coaches than of students. Interviews are notoriously unreliable, with different interviewers giving widely divergent scores.
Standardized tests, for all their recognized imperfections, are carefully designed and tested to measure such basic intellectual skills as reading comprehension, vocabulary, critical thinking, computational ability and quantitative reasoning. Are admissions officers at SAT-optional universities saying that the test scores do not provide probative evidence of the possession of these skills? Are they saying that these skills are not relevant to success in the educational program of their colleges? Neither claim is remotely plausible.
Moreover, if standardized test scores really are so imperfect, we should scrap them altogether. It's illogical to count a test score if it is high but ignore it if it is low.
Those who advocate making test scores optional sometimes argue that individual applicants know best whether their test scores are good measures of their academic abilities. But how can a high school senior know this? We all believe that we are better than our test scores and, for that matter, our grade point averages, our writing samples and our interview performances. But wishing doesn't make it so.
Those who drop SAT or ACT requirements say that doing so helps open admissions to more members of certain racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups that tend, on average, to score lower on these tests. Dropping the requirement encourages such students to apply and makes it easier for the college to admit them.
But if the scores on these tests are in fact evidence of academically relevant skills, shouldn't the college know how much of a deficit the student will need to overcome if he or she is admitted?
The college isn't doing any favor to applicants by pretending that these skills are not important, or that the beneficiaries of these policies will not have to compete with students possessing those skills in abundance. An institution that, commendably, seeks to enroll more minority and lower-income students can do so by giving less weight to SAT or ACT scores, either across the board or in selective cases. But concealing the applicants' test scores is just willful blindness.
Making SAT scores optional is the latest instance of a disheartening trend in college admissions. In the rush to climb the pecking order, educational institutions are adopting practices, and rationalizations for those practices, unworthy of the intellectual rigor they seek to instill in their students.
Reprinted with permission.