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Articles / Preparing for College / Tyranny in Testing?

Tyranny in Testing?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 16, 2017

Over the past eight or so years here, I have strongly expressed my opinions about the shortcomings of standardized college entrance tests and their biases and inadequacies to deliver their intended purpose. So, I'm always interested in any new takes that may support my viewpoints about these tests that can alter a young person's life in dramatic fashion.

That's why I was quite interested (even amazed) at an article I discovered: SAT, ACT, Both BAD: The Problem with College Readiness Exams. The subhead states "College Readiness Exams Measure the Wrong Things." Those are the opinions of author Zara Kornfeld. I'd like to explore them a bit more and share some additional points here.

Although Zara's admonitions are focused on the consequences for Nyack, New York ("America's tool for measuring college readiness is failing us, and Nyack is not immune."), the implications are global. Here are some core impacts of Kornfeld's contentions:

... A major issue with these tests is that more than measuring college readiness, they measure financial stability. While this may not be an intended result, students from households which earn less than $20,000 per year on average scored around 400 points lower on the 2014 SAT than students from households which made $200,000 per year. In 2007, the highest average SAT scores in Rockland County were from the Clarkstown Central School District. The average income per household in 2015 for Clarkstown was $103,151. Compare this to the lowest SAT scores of that year (around 300 points lower than Clarkstown) which came from the East Ramapo Central School District, which had an average household income of $45,613 in 2015. ...

It may seem counterintuitive to imagine that a standardized test can measure some aspect of a student's personal financial environment. Granted, some may argue that the demographic sampling here is too small to draw such a broad conclusion, but one of the prime takeaways might well be that students coming from families with six-figure incomes have significantly easier access to professional test prep help than students from homes with half that much annual income, on average.

This, of course, has been an ongoing knock against these tests, particularly those of College Board/ETS. The apparent student financial bias, of course, has notable exceptions. There are numerous cases of students from non-affluent homes who score quite well on standardized tests, but were talking trends here. It's one of those "If it looks like a duck ..." issues.

Kornfeld addresses the access-to-coaching issue:

... The correlation between household income and college readiness scores might have something to do with the $2.5 billion spent inside of the test preparatory system in 2009 alone. ... Organizations such as The National Center for Fair and Open Testing have said the tests are “highly coachable, advantaging students who can afford to spend $800 or more on test preparation classes." ...

... The correlation between income and test scores implies that students attempting to prove their readiness for college through these tests will be seen through a different light according to their financial background. ...

And what about racial bias? Kornfeld takes no prisoners:

... ACTs and SATs are Racially Biased

And not only do standardized tests show their bias financially, they show it racially too. On average, Black and Hispanic students do significantly worse than White and Asian students. Nyack has a White majority, with 58% of its residents being Caucasian. Clarkstown is 67% White, while Spring Valley is 40% Black and 30% Hispanic. The town's scores and White populations correlate, and this problem is by no means isolated to Rockland.

The cause of the correlation is heavily debated. Some have cited lower income and less affluent areas as the cause for the lower test scores. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, authors of The Black-White Test Score Gap, argue that the gap exists because of the parent's attitude towards education. No matter the reason, even on standardized tests besides the ACT and SAT, the system shows its bias. ...

It appears that there is a steep slope of challenge for students within the above demographic groups. However, there are alternatives, as Kornfeld notes:

... Not all hope is lost, though.

Schools like Hampshire College completely banned applicants' submittance of standardized testing in 2014. They claimed, among other reasons, that “Some good students are bad test takers, particularly under stress, such as when a test may grant or deny college entry; Multiple-choice tests don't reveal much about a student." As a result of this change, they claim, “Class diversity increased to 31% students of color, the most diverse in our history, up from 21% two years ago." The question arises, then: If not the standardized tests, then how are schools supposed to measure college readiness in applicants?

Hampshire College claims that high school GPA gives a much more accurate depiction of college readiness, as it shows a student's work over their entire high school careers instead of being based on one day. They also have put in place a system in which recommendation letters and writing supplements are used in order to put admissions counselors “in a much better position to predict their likelihood of success [at Hampshire]". ...

Aha. Enter holistic admissions. Here's what I said about that in a previous post:

"Have you heard of the term 'holistic college admissions'? First of all, let's ask Google to define the term 'holistic':

... characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

Huh? Say what? Let's try again by asking Merriam-Webster:

... relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts

Ah, now we're getting closer.

As it applies to college admissions, then, 'holistic' means that admission committees look at the overall applicant, not just his or her individual components (GPA, class rank, rest scores, high school schedule, etc.). It's a kind of Big-Picture assessment of what an applicant might bring to a college's student body.

An analogy of holistic admissions might be looking at a mountain. We see peaks and valleys, maybe even snow and glistening ice, in one magnificent vista. What impresses us less acutely might be the bare, brown spots on the lower slopes that were hit by a forest fire. Or, perhaps, we don't pay too much attention to the surrounding landscape, which might not contribute to the appealing image before us."

So, yes, there is hope for those of you who cringe at (or even fear) standardized college admissions tests. If you do, then please consider this list:

925+ Accredited Colleges and Universities That Do Not Use ACT/SAT Scores to Admit Substantial Numbers of Students Into Bachelor-Degree Programs

This list includes institutions that are "test optional," "test flexible" or otherwise de-emphasize the use of standardized tests by making admissions decisions -- without using ACT or SAT scores -- for all or many applicants who recently graduated from U.S. high schools.

Happy day!

Kornfeld's concludes with passion:

... It is not an acceptable explanation to simply say that because your test says that these students are not ready for college, that it means that they are not ready for college. The problem here is lack of evidence and a surplus of authority. ACT and College Board are the only suppliers of the tests, and because many colleges them, they become the only authority families can listen to. The testing system, as organizations such as Americans for Educational Testing Reform (AETR) have realized, is more or less a monopoly.

A capitalization on education is immoral and underhanded, and it preys on the less fortunate. If colleges truly do want a measure of college readiness, they would do best to look away from the cold numbers of standardized tests, and take a deeper look at the student.

I love that phrase "lack of evidence and surplus of authority." That's where many colleges sit these days -- on a throne built on an imposing foundation of excess applications. It's time to move away from the era of autocratic testing to the heyday of holistic admissions! Why must there be just one hand clapping?


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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