SAT Wars

By Mary Grabar | October 27, 2011 | 10:09am EDT

When standardized college admissions tests, like the SAT, are eliminated, as some argue they should be, what will replace them? Aspiring college freshmen might be asked to write a story to the title, “The Octopus’s Sneakers.” Or they might be asked to answer, “Who has had more impact on your life, William Shakespeare or Ryan Seacrest?”

These are actual questions already being used. They are among the things promoted in the new book, “SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions,” published by Columbia Teachers College Press. A more accurate title would have been “Declaring War on the SAT.”

The first of the aforementioned examples is from Oklahoma State Psychology Professor Robert J. Sternberg’s Rainbow Test, which he promotes (along with the “Kaleidoscope” test) as “an atheoretical [sic] composite” that tests “motivation and conscientiousness.”  Other test tasks include “orally telling two stories based upon choices of picture collages” or “captioning cartoons.”

The Shakespeare/Seacrest prompt faces potential students at Wake Forest University, where Sociology Professor Joseph A. Soares was instrumental in that school’s adoption of a test optional admissions policy.

The new program relies on face-to-face interviews after candidates are prescreened with 30-minute written online virtual interviews using questions like the Shakespeare/Seacrest one. Soares also happens to be the editor of this new book.

In his introduction, Soares notes that all but three of the chapters originated as presentations at national conferences: at Wake Forest, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the group that I wrote about in 2009. NACAC’s 2008 report encouraged institutions “to consider dropping the admissions test requirements.”

Then, I noted the self-contradictions within its own pages and that this purportedly professional organization would be relying on the dubious research of activist Robert Schaeffer, a widely quoted Public Education Director for the misnamed National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or Fair Test.

As I described in 2009, Schaeffer runs a firm that provides “strategic communications for progressive causes,” like nuclear disarmament, making Schaeffer something less than an authority on higher education policy. In “SAT Wars,” Schaeffer offers a recycling of an old essay that relies on the “research” conducted by Fair Test.

Another contributor to the volume is a lawyer who was involved in two lawsuits against the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the SAT test, the oldest and most widely used college admissions test. Such conflicts of interest lead to contradictions within the book.

For example, “SAT Wars” tells us the test should be eliminated or made optional because it privileges white, upper-class children of college-educated parents who can afford test preparation courses. Later in the book, we learn that such courses have no statistically significant bearing on improved scores.

Standard charges about discrimination against minorities are repeated, but the fact that Asian minority students outperform the presumed “privileged” white students is almost ignored.

In fact, Soares, in his conclusion, contradicts the points made by the authors of the final essay, Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Yang Chung. Soares repeats the mantra, “High school GPA is the best academic predictor of college grades, and the SAT/ACT adds only very modestly to the power of statistical models.”

Espenshade and Chung, though, assert “standardized admissions test scores are statistically significant and substantively important predictors of college grades.” Looking at an evaluation of 150,000 students from 110 four-year colleges and universities, they conclude that GPA and test scores in combination “do best.”

They refer to research that “discred[its] the belief that SAT or ACT tests are biased against members of minority groups.”

Where the SAT is useful is among those groups that test-optional advocates purport to help: those from poorly performing schools, most often in low-income and minority areas. Three researchers from Johns Hopkins University affirm the importance of the SAT in qualifying math and science students.

They write, “For almost all academic areas, the introduction of SAT scores made the effects of race insignificant or considerably lessened. In other words, considering the SAT helped to mitigate the effect of race.” For natural science and engineering students, “the effect of parent education went away with the introduction of SAT scores.”

According to Espenshade and Chung, it is at top-tier high schools that grade point averages hold the most weight in predicting academic success. Grade point averages in low-performing schools are least likely to be reliable predictors.

Admissions people know that an “A” from a poorly performing school does not mean the same as one from a high-achieving school. For the smart student who happens to be stuck at a poor school, standardized tests offer an opportunity to shine.

Espenshade and Chung also distinguish between a test-optional policy, where students have the option of submitting scores as part of their application process, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of disregarding scores altogether. The latter is the most encouraging to groups that underperform, but the authors conclude, “At some point a tradeoff emerges between diversity and college preparedness.”

When one’s main concern is not academics but “diversity” and identifying “creative, ethical problem-solvers” through Rainbow tests as Soares recommends, it seems that the evidence to the contrary can be ignored. “I hope,” he concludes, “that as part of this conversation each college would find ways to move beyond the SAT/ACT.”

Continuing a “conversation” appears to be the aim, for real evidence seems to have little bearing. Martha Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest, describes an exhausting admissions selection process requiring extra personnel.

But because the new cadre of students was “the most accomplished and the most geographically, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse class in Wake Forest history,” it was worth the tears, occasional raised voices, and late nights, according to her. It’s to be expected when admissions decisions rely on responses to inane questions.

Soares agrees with Allman about the results and rhapsodizes about “more lively class discussion,” “classroom excitement,” and “students looking more diverse, not just racially but also in terms of attire and comportment.”

Finally, he repeats the refrain that has become dogma: “All students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, learn best in a community with a diversity of talents and demographics.”

I’ve never seen a legitimate study to support this claim, nor is one of any kind offered in this collection.

Pity the underprivileged student from a poor-performing school who is a math whiz and faces the task of coming up with a story about an octopus. I have a Ph.D. in English, and I doubt that I could come up with one to satisfy these new keepers of the academic gates.

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