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College Admissions Tests: Destructive Icons or Useful Tools?

by Philip Ballinger - November 04, 2008

This commentary seeks to frame the current debate about the use and misuses of undergraduate college admissions tests -- particularly the SAT and ACT. The author was a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling's Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. In the commentary, the author presents some of the primary concerns of the Commission using the guiding images of 'icon' and 'tool'. The author gives some examples of test-use practices underlying the Commission's concerns as well as some of its responsive recommendations. Finally, the author states continuing support for the use of these tests at some institutions only if their original and essential nature as tools can be restored.

Iconic aptly describes the SAT today. In at least the Midwestern United States, the same could be said for the ACT. Because of their iconic status, these tests struggle to remain what they are in origin and essence – tools. Standardized college admissions tests are tools that add predictive value to disparate high school records and standards. “Predictive value” here refers primarily to how well a student might do in the first year of college, and not to how good a college is, or whether one college is better than another, or how much student engagement occurs at a college, or whether a college should receive an Aaa or Baa bond rating. As for students, the SAT and ACT are not measures of worth, or of merit, or even of longer-term college success. They are tools, and ideally tools that help colleges understand how they can serve students better not only through appropriate admissions decisions, but also through support services.    

The currently tension-filled marriage of icon and tool in these standardized tests needs solid counseling. Some of that counsel was recently offered in the report of the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission. The Commission, of which I was a member, did not question the value or validity of the tests as tools. The tests measure what they purport; they are modestly predictive, and in that sense, they can be useful. However, the Commission did express serious concerns about the affects and misuses of these tests, especially in relation to public policy, social mobility, and even student welfare.  

What do the tests predict and how should they be used? Generally speaking, both the SAT and ACT reflect foundational preparation for college work (but not always) and help predict academic performance, particularly in the first year of college (but not always). They are good tools when used in addition to high school grades in college preparatory curriculum. Arguably, they are a counter-balance to the demonstrated grade inflation and widely uneven quality of instruction in schools across the nation. They are best used as one element in a comprehensive or holistic admission review process, and not in isolation. For example, one would not expect a student who immigrated from East Africa or Latin America at the age of 14, and whose primary language is not English, to score exceptionally well on either the reading or writing sections of these tests. Yet, if the student has achieved well in college preparatory courses, modest or even low test scores do not necessarily predict failure in college or even in the first year of college. Rather, they may indicate where a particular student - a student who may well go on to be an outstanding scholar - will need additional work or support in college. On the other hand, a student exhibiting high test scores and suspect grades should give rise to questions about motivation, engagement, or unusual personal circumstances. In both these cases, the test scores are useful in context, but not in isolation and not as an exclusive arbiter. Could good decisions about admissions or even support be made in the absence of these tests? At many colleges, the answer is yes. The Commission even suggested that many more colleges could go “test optional” without ill affects for either institution or student. Are the tests useful? Again, at many colleges they are. So where do the vexing difficulties rest with these tests?  

The Commission recognized that standardized tests have become an increasingly important and more heavily weighted factor in college admission and scholarship processes around the country over the past decade. This fact alone explains why the test preparation industry has grown rapidly into well over a billion-dollar enterprise. While the affects and benefits of commercial test preparation services are neither adequately understood nor independently researched, test prep does appear to provide modest score increases for most students (e.g., 20 to 30 points on the old SAT 1600-point scale). The benefits of test prep services, however nominal they may be, are not widely distributed; in the main, they accrue to economically advantaged students. Because scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT already correlate highly with family income, the pervasiveness of test prep amplifies this socio-economic advantage in processes which place heavy emphasis upon scores. This fact does not invalidate the predictive quality of the tests, but it does raise questions of equity and heighten concerns about institutions using them in non-contextualized fashions. For example, the Commission has called for an end to the practice of using minimum test scores or “cutscores” for admission and merit aid eligibility. Not only is this practice a misuse of the test scores on a psychometric basis, it also clearly disadvantages lower income, underrepresented student populations. The additional fact that many colleges appear over time to have shifted need-based aid funds to merit-based scholarship funds awarded in large measure upon the basis of test scores magnifies the Commission’s concern. Additionally, some members of the Commission suspect that institutions pursue these types of policies in order to manipulate college rankings. The potential result of such usages of standardized tests is the increasing calcification of college student enrollment along lines of socio-economic status, parental education level, and race or ethnicity. Such a potential outcome is far from the hope that our colleges and universities can continue to be engines of social mobility within the fast-changing American demographic.

College rankings, college bond rating assessments, high stakes accountability measures in various school districts and states…this is a partial list of contexts in which the tests are misused as tools because they are icons. All of these misuses lead to institutional strategies and even pedagogies that are potentially not for the welfare or in the service of students. For example, the continued use of admissions test scores as bond rating and college ranking criteria presses institutions to pursue ever higher scores. This pursuit, in turn, adds to the “high stakes” atmosphere surrounding the tests, increases the anxiety-fueled flow of money to test preparation businesses, expands the use of classroom instruction time for test prep activities, and promotes an inordinate emphasis on scores in the college transition process. A debate has now intensified – do the wider and arguably harmful social affects of the amplified use of these tests now outweigh their value as admissions tools at specific institutions? Have their iconic status, misuse, and misappropriation made them instruments of exclusion? Are colleges and universities being adequately cognizant and critical of why and how standardized tests for undergraduate admissions are used at their institutions?

The Commission has offered a series of recommendations in view of these concerns. Among them are:

Colleges and universities should conduct institution-specific and independent validity research to determine the specific usefulness of standardized admissions tests relative to student success at their institutions.

The NACAC and other stakeholders in the use of standardized testing should commit resources to support ongoing and thorough research on the affects of various forms of test preparation.

Institutions and the National Merit Corporation should cease using test cutscores to determine initial scholarship eligibility.

U.S. News and World Report and other organizations should end the use of admissions test scores as measures of institutional quality in their college rankings.

Bond rating agencies and other financial enterprises should cease using admissions test scores as measures of institutional financial health.

Governmental agencies should refrain from using admissions tests without modification as measures of educational achievement for state accountability purposes.

The College Board and ACT should conduct an audit of institutions’ uses of their testing products.

The NACAC should develop fundamental admission-test training for admission officers and high school counselors.

These and other recommendations may help focus the ongoing debate about the use of standardized tests in undergraduate admissions. In the meantime, I still support the use of these tests as tools in a comprehensive admissions process. However, I direct admissions at a large, relatively selective, and public flagship institution still focused upon broad access and need-based aid policies. My institution would lose good tools in support of student success if we had to forego the use of the SAT and ACT. Still, if during the debate about the current uses and misuses of standardized tests in undergraduate college admissions, we arrive at the conclusion that the tests, in spite of being good tools for the institution, have become socially harmful icons beyond restoration, then I believe that we too would consider going “test optional.” These tests’ value rests in their nature as tools, not icons.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 04, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15431, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 5:19:22 PM

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About the Author
  • Philip Ballinger
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    PHILIP BALLINGER is Director of Admissions at the University of Washington.
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