Ethical College Admissions: Overrated

Colleges prepare for an admissions cycle without mandatory testing, writes Jim Jump.

June 29, 2020
 
iStock.com/Michael Quirk

What do President Trump and the nation’s colleges and universities have in common? They both think testing is overrated.

Of course, they are talking about different kinds of testing. For the president the testing in question is coronavirus testing. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump stated, “I personally think that testing is overrated.” In the same interview he made the claim “I created the greatest testing machine in history.” Did he just claim to have created the Educational Testing Service?

At his Tulsa, Okla., rally, Trump either confessed or joked that he had ordered his “people” to slow down testing because the tests might reveal that people are sick with the virus. Several White House officials subsequently claimed that Trump’s admission was in jest, another example of his dry, impish sense of humor.

For college admission offices, the tests that are overrated, at least for the coming year, are the SAT and ACT. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest, has announced that more than half of the nation’s colleges and universities will be test optional for the 2020-21 admission cycle. That was before Harvard and Princeton Universities joined the list, making the Ivy League eight for eight in announcing test-optional policies for the coming year. According to FairTest, in the past couple of months more than 200 colleges have gone test optional for at least the coming cycle.

What about the others? Going test optional for 2020-21 is clearly a trend. But at what point does a trend become a wave? Will any admission offices be able to continue requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores for the coming application cycle, or is the test-optional wave too strong and coercive? Are colleges, like the teenagers they hope to enroll, susceptible to peer pressure?

The pressure might not be coming from peers, but rather the public, or at least the marketplace. Earlier this spring I talked to an admissions dean at a liberal arts college considering adopting a test-optional policy. He wondered if there would a tipping point once a certain number of institutions decided to go the test-optional route. Would students decide they are unwilling to apply to those outliers still requiring applicants to submit test scores?

We may be reaching that point. I am not a member of the “when Harvard itches, everyone scratches” school of thought, but when many of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities, including all the Ivies, have decided that testing will be optional, can the holdouts justify continuing to require testing? If places that make fine distinctions among superbly qualified applicants decide that they can go without the data point and sorting tool that test scores provide, how can less selective institutions maintain that testing is necessary? I am sure that there are arguments for continuing to require testing, but I can’t think of any that are compelling.

The cancellation of test dates this spring means that test scores for next year’s seniors won’t be as meaningful. Both the normal testing calendar and student psyches have been upended.

I have always advised students to test at least once in the spring of the junior year and once in the fall of the senior year. Assuming that the August administration of the SAT goes forward as planned, that will be the first opportunity most of my rising seniors have had to take admission tests.

The remainder took tests in the fall of their junior year, something I don’t recommend, because in my experience scores from junior-year fall testing are almost never as high as the student will score in the spring or in the fall of senior year. One potential benefit from the testing turmoil this spring might be the return of a January test date, which disappeared when the College Board added the August administration several years ago. January is an ideal first testing date for juniors, and since the January administration was removed I have seen more of my students test in the fall, not wanting to wait until March.

The compressed testing schedule puts more pressure on fall tests, and that will lead to increased anxiety among students already worried about testing. That doesn’t even take into account areas of the country where the supply of testing centers and seats are not keeping up with demand. Under the best of conditions, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about what test scores mean, and these are hardly the best of conditions.

If test scores won’t be as meaningful, good test scores might be more valuable. The hidden currency of selective admission is that the rarer any talent or quality, the more valuable. Test optional means that submitting test scores becomes a choice, even a strategy, for students. Colleges may not penalize students for not submitting test scores, but they also won’t penalize students who happen to have and submit strong scores.

Test-optional colleges weren’t the only ones in the news last week. So were test-blind colleges, colleges that don’t even look at test scores in the admissions process.

The term “test-blind” is apparently a derivative of “need-blind” admission policies that don’t take into account a student’s financial need in making decisions. But just as there are institutions that are need blind in theory but need aware, even “need peek” on the margins, I wonder if we will see the same thing occur with testing. Test peek, anyone?

The University of California system recently announced that it will eliminate use of the SAT and ACT for California residents over the next five years. The UC will be test optional for the next two years, followed by two test blind years as the university figures out whether to develop its own standardized test or abandon testing altogether. Then on June 17 U.S. News & World Report announced that it will begin ranking colleges that are test blind in admission after listing them as “unranked” since 2008.

The question is whether any of us should care. The U.S. News rankings may be one of the few things in the world of college admission more overrated than test scores. U.S. News claims that “the change is intended to help prospective students and their families know the academic quality of all schools.” There is valuable comparative data collected by U.S. News, but the one thing that rankings based on external metrics can’t begin to measure is the most important thing -- what happens in the classroom. That’s like ranking churches without factoring in spirituality.

Rather than beginning to rank 205 test-blind colleges and universities, U.S. News would have done students and all of us a greater service by moving in the other direction and transferring the currently ranked 1,500 colleges into the “unranked” category.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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