October 9, 2008

Study Looks at Value of SATs In Univ. Admissions Process

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For the University’s 3,183 freshmen in the Class of 2012, the ritual gauntlet of APs, IBs, and SATs is over … for now.
And as another 33,000-person applicant pool lines up to perform the academic rite of passage in hopes of gaining admission to the University, a new report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling begs the question whether the tests are necessary.
The report, entitled “The Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission” was commissioned by the NACAC in 1999 and released on Sept. 23. It urges colleges to re-evaluate the utility of standardized testing in the admissions process. Furthermore, the report argues that standardized test scores are liable for misuse and fail to understand differences in test scores between different groups of people.
Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment, stated in an e-mail that Cornell’s current use of standardized test scores in the admissions process “is consistent with the recommendation from the College Board and ACT that the tests should not be the primary factor in making admissions decisions.”
Although she confirmed that the admissions office has had “ongoing discussions” about standardized testing, she said, “I believe that our current policy appropriately places the value of standardized test scores within the overall admissions process.”
The NACAC report says that while many colleges have adopted SAT-optional policies, “standardized admission tests have become an increasingly important factor in undergraduate admission.” According to the report, 46 percent of colleges reported admissions test scores to be of “considerable importance” in 1993 compared to 60 percent in 2006.
Meanwhile, Advance Placement, International Baccalaureate and SAT II Subject Test scores have polled between 5 percent and 8 percent in the same survey over the past five years.
The report argues that these subject tests in fact have more additive utility than the broader SAT and ACT reasoning tests. Despite acknowledging the strong relationship between standardized test scores and first-year grades, the report challenges the notion that the tests provide any significant “additional predictive utility” than grades in college-prep courses taken in high school. It therefore implies that the current educational institutions overvalue standardized test scores in the admissions process.
Beyond proposing to advocate the ineffectiveness of standardized test scores, the report also exposes what it identifies as misuses and abuses of the system. In particular, it concludes “students without the financial resources to gain access to test preparation may, in effect, be penalized for lower test scores in some admission and scholarship scenarios.” Combining data from several reports, the report finds that the “average gain from SAT coaching is between 6 and 8 points on the verbal section and between 14 and 18 points on the math section.”
Some students, like Holly Do ’10, are baffled by many elements of the testing process. She said, “In my high school, nobody told me about the SAT [Subject Tests].”
On its 2009 freshmen application, the University states that it is “an affirmative-action educator,” hinting that it abides by the report’s primary recommendation that standardized test scores be taken in context with other factors.
However, the NACAC report devotes several pages to exposing what it considers to be an egregious fault of using standardized test scores out of a holistic context, citing the use of “cutscores” for merit aid eligibility. It assigns fault namely to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, which uses PSAT scores as an “initial screen” for merit aid eligibility. The current practice employs PSAT scores exclusively to determine eligibility to participate in the semi-final stage. The report further reprimands the NMSC for using different cutscores for the scholarship. The NMSC is a private organization.
Cornell’s freshmen have generally negative memories of their standardized testing experiences. Sam Roland ’12 said, “I just think that they are inherently flawed because … to some extent, they are only a judgement of how much you study for them. Standardized tests should not be a measure of how much you study … that’s what school is for.”
Brian Manzi ’12 — alluding to the issue that low SAT scores seem to disqualify, or at least discourage, otherwise qualified students — said, “People who are qualified can get weeded out anyway.”
Brandon Lemesh ’09 confirmed the opinion, calling standardized tests an “early eliminator.”
Arguing that test scores fail to measure the competence of any student, Kate Previte ’09 said, “Tests merely determine whether kids are ready to take the test… teachers just teach to the test in schools.”
However, despite their reservations, many students concede that the SAT Reasoning Test is a necessary evil.
Adam Drenkard ’11 said, “High schools are different… [standardized tests are] the best way to compare different people.”
Carolyn Abbott ‘10 echoed the acquiescent attitude of many undergraduates. She said, “It was just a requirement. I was never good, but I didn’t feel disadvantaged… everyone had to take it.”