February 12, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | The Conversation on Standardized Testing Marches On

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Last January, University of California President Janet Napolitano tasked the University of California’s Academic Senate with “exam[ining] the University’s current use of standardized testing for admission and consider[ing] whether the University and its students are best served by UC’s current testing practices, a modification of current practices, another testing approach, or the elimination of testing.” Institutions across the country were moving away from requiring standardized tests for admissions, so it came as no surprise that the UC system would evaluate the merit of making the submission of standardized tests optional (a policy often referred to as test-optional). What they weren’t prepared for was the announcement of the Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal two months later, which catapulted conversations regarding admissions into the national spotlight. Now more than ever, people wanted to know whether the UC system, which includes more than 280,000 students, would endorse becoming test-optional.

While the panel convened by the UC Academic Senate worked, other universities began to come forward with decisions of their own regarding standardized testing. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing announced that over 47 new schools had transitioned to test-optional policies raising the total number to over 1,000 institutions in 2019. The University of Chicago, one of the most prominent institutions to go test-optional last year as part of their Empower Program, reported an increase of 56 percent in enrollment of first-generation and low-income, rural, and veteran students. Graduate programs across the country also moved towards test-optional with an increasing number of programs moving to drop the GRE, a graduate school entry exam, from their admission requirements. While relatively minor in comparison to policy changes occurring at other institutions, Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences dropped the SAT subject test requirement and several graduate fields including biomedical engineering and english dropped the GRE requirement.  The tide seemed to be shifting, with 2019 even dubbed “The Best Year Ever for Test-Optional Higher Ed. Admissions.”

So, when the UC Academic Senate’s report on standardized testing was released last week, many were surprised to see that the report recommended that, at least for the near future, the UC system should continue requiring the ACT/SAT for admission. While they acknowledge that consideration of test scores may adversely affect underrepresented minority applicants, they believed that dropping the ACT/SAT requirement “could have significant, unanticipated and undesirable effects on the profile of matriculating classes.” They ultimately argued for keeping the requirement while further research is done on the possible effect of moving towards test-optional.

The results of the UC report seem to not only contradict narratives emerging from schools and programs that have transitioned to test-optional but also recent research that suggests standardized tests are not a strong predictor of college graduate or success. Regardless of one’s opinions on the results of the UC report, the initiative taken by the UC system to explore and publicize how standardized testing influences their admission landscape is admirable. It is time for Cornell to take advantage of the suite of experts currently working for us in this field and follow suit.

To quote Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management at DePaul University, “Colleges have an obligation to do research on the efficacy of standardized tests, and to consider the value of them in the admissions process.” Prospective students, current students and alumni are all debating the utility of standardized testing in our admissions process, and the university should provide them with information on whether this metric is effective within the admissions process. In a time when trust in the fairness of the college admissions process is at an all time low, public evidence validating the tools we use to consider admitting students would be invaluable. As touchpoints into the community, students and alumni can be particularly effective defendants of our admissions policies, but only if they understand why they are there.

But, even if we operate on the assumption that standardized testing is an equitable and informative metric (and this is a big assumption) for a moment, we should ask ourselves whether placing significant emphasis on numerical evaluations of applicant ability is really in the best interest of students. As we continue to evaluate the culture of student mental health on campus, a recurrent theme is the negative consequences of over emphasizing numerical metrics, such as test scores and grade point average. This mentality starts as the admissions level, before students even arrive, as applicants begin to obsess over whether their test scores will help secure them a spot in our incoming class. Limiting our use of numerical metrics to only those with the most proven predictive value may be a way to mitigate this, and current research shows that metric is not standardized testing but high school GPA. Preliminary research extends this result to the graduate level, suggesting that non-quantitative measures were better predictors of student success than the GRE.

It is clear that the efficacy of standardized testing in finding and admitting qualified students and their potential impact on student culture should be evaluated. However, it would be naive to believe that a transition to test-optional would, on its own, actually advance the university’s goal of enrolling a diverse and talented student body. Remember, the University of Chicago’s impressive 2018 bump in enrollment of first-generation and low-income, rural and veteran students? Their transition to test-optional was paired with the offering of full scholarships to students from families earning less than $125,000 per year and new scholarships for first-generation and veteran students as well as an increased recruitment push to rural and inner-city students. While we evaluate the merit of moving test-optional, we should not lose sight of what this change must be paired with in order to recruit and retain the best students.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Munasinghe can be reached at mmunasinghe@cornellsun.com. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.