Standardized Tests: Fair or Unfair?

February 10, 2009 - 3:56 PM
When the nation's largest organization of college admissions professionals unveiled its report on the "use of standardized tests in undergraduate admissions" last fall, national newspapers like <i>The New York Times </i>and education journals like <i>Inside Higher Ed </i>interpreted the conclusions as validation for the end of the use of standardized tests.
When the nation’s largest organization of college admissions professionals unveiled its report on the “use of standardized tests in undergraduate admissions” last fall, national newspapers like The New York Times and education journals like Inside Higher Ed interpreted the conclusions as validation for the end of the use of standardized tests.
 
The report, by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), was directed by Harvard University’s dean of admissions and financial aid, William R. Fitzsimmons. It gave a certain imprimatur to the notion that the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, much sweated over by high school juniors, is unnecessary. 
 
The report’s muddled language and contradictory conclusions certainly lend themselves to such interpretations, especially by those already hostile toward standardized testing or toward objective evaluative judgments in education.
 
Oddly, today’s attitude toward the SAT sharply contrasts with the one that motivated another Harvard figure, former President James Bryant Conant, some 60 years ago. Conant and Educational Testing Service developed the test to reward those with intellectual merit, but without social standing, with the chance for admission to the elite colleges of the day.  
 
The NACAC report makes no specific charges but claims that a “‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for the use of standardized tests in undergraduate admission does not reflect the realities facing the nation’s colleges and universities.” 

The authors encourage “institutions to consider dropping the admission test requirements if it is determined that the predictive utility of the test or the admission policies of the institution (such as open access) support that decision and if the institution believes that standardized test results would not be necessary for other reasons such as course placement, advising, or research” (italics retained).
 
This tortured qualification provides further permission to the growing number of schools making the SAT optional for purposes of college admission. While admissions professionals promote test optional policies as beneficial to students, schools also enjoy their benefits. By 2007, 28 of U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 liberal arts colleges had become test-optional.  
 
But advertised test scores rose among 27 of those, when they advertised mean or average scores only from students who opted to submit their test results for purposes of admission. (Only one of those schools fully reported the scores of all students, including those who submitted test scores after enrolling.)   
 
Jonathan P. Epstein, a researcher with the education consultancy Maguire Associates, expresses concerns about such artificially inflated scores.
 
In the firm’s May 2008 newsletter, he revealed that “SAT scores for non-submitters are 100-150 points lower than submitters; therefore eliminating those scores for 25 percent to 50 percent of enrolling students increases the institution’s average SAT score between 25 and 75 points.” 
 
The higher average SAT score helps inch the school up in the highly competitive US News & World Report rankings. But Epstein worries that such inflated scores may discourage qualified students from applying. He further notes that the practice “may completely disorient prospective students and families” and concludes that such disorientation in the market “is not in the best interests of any institution or higher education in general.”
 
What may be the most puzzling – and revealing – statement in the NACAC report is found on page 43 where the authors, referring back to the SAT’s early years, acknowledge its value as a tool for measuring the “academic potential of seniors at public high schools from all over the country who had not been specifically prepared” for admission to the nation’s top colleges. 
 
Inexplicably, the same test used for admission to public colleges today is said to create a problem. If such tests were fair measures of the ability of applicants to elite colleges in the past, why are they not seen as fair for public institutions today? 
 
The sentence that follows is telling: “In addition, [the tests] have been interpreted by some as indications of the mental capacity of the individual test-taker ….” “Mental capacity” is not defined, but one can presume that this is meant as a measure of intelligence and knowledge. 
 
As one evaluative factor along with grades, class rank, etc., as recommended by NACAC, such a purpose would seem legitimate. Again, if such tests are lauded for their equalizing effect in mid-century America, why not now? 
 
The NACAC report contradicts itself also on the issue of grade point average. The Commission notes that GPA is generally “the most reliable predictor of first-year academic performance in college.” Yet within the same paragraph the authors admit that the varying quality of high schools make GPA-based assessments difficult. This seemingly provides further support for standardized testing. 
 
Citing its own survey, the NACAC Commission expresses alarm over the increasing importance placed on standardized tests. But their survey results seem to contradict their own claims. For example, the survey shows that the percentage of admissions officers who say “considerable importance” is placed on admission tests rose to 60 percent in 2006 from 46 percent in 1993. 
 
Yet, a similar rise in importance was also seen in “Grades in all courses” – up to 51 percent in 2006 from 39 percent in 1993. It seems that admissions professionals are doing exactly what the commission has recommended. 
 
Even if the charge that an inordinate emphasis was being placed on test scores were borne out, the practice would conflict with the organization’s own professional goals. They state, “standardized admissions tests (SAT and ACT) are not the most important factor in college admission decisions.” 
 
Certainly, if colleges are deviating from professional standards, then reform or censure is called for. NACAC, instead, proposes doing away with minimum cut-off points for test scores, thus eliminating one of several—and “not most important factors in college admissions decisions” already. 
 
Based on this rationale, would the next logical step entail eliminating the minimum grade point average? 
 
What emerges from the NACAC report is an unevenly justified complaint of a social nature propelling a slow but steady movement toward test optional policies. But other forces work behind the test optional push and the demonstrated confusion in the NACAC report and its recommendations. 
 
The factors are many, but a wizard pulling the levers emerges. His activist organization has long promoted the elimination of standardized tests.
 
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more colloquially referred to as Fair Test, has been in the vanguard of efforts to eliminate standardized testing from college admissions since its founding in 1985. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, its spokesman, Robert Schaeffer, the organization’s “public education director,” is sought out widely as an authority on this issue. 
 
In spite of Schaeffer’s admitted paucity of higher education expertise, his statements appear ubiquitously in national newspapers as well as in education journals—not to mention in NACAC’s own reports. Schaeffer calls Fair Test a “national leader” and a “watchdog” on the abuses of testing. Yet an examination of the group’s efforts suggests that Fair Test’s ultimate goal is to do away with the SAT and ACT tests.   
 
One could be forgiven for thinking it odd that a presumably academic organization like NACAC relies on activist agitation as much or more than on peer- reviewed research or meta-analyses produced by competent education professionals. 
 
Perhaps even more unusual is what’s revealed in an examination of the credentials and funding behind Fair Test. These should give pause to those engaged in higher education or otherwise advancing educational goals as traditionally understood.  
 
Next: Drilling down to the core of Fair Test, its finances and the backgrounds of its staff.
 
Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in the Atlanta area.