College Board Crisis

05/25/2011 12:55 pm ET
  • Nicolaus Mills Professor of American Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

By Nicolaus Mills

While the crisis of confidence in the nation's banking system has been capturing headlines this fall, a second crisis in confidence---this one on the reliability of the standardized tests (SAT and ACT) used by most colleges and universities in their admissions process---has been going on just below the radar.
This second crisis is no small matter, especially if you are a high school senior trying to get into highly competitive public or private school.
Every year increasing numbers of students (1.5 million took the SAT in 2007) take these standardized admissions tests, hoping that high scores will get them into the college of their choice and help them win scholarships. The pressure to do well on these tests is so great that they have spawned a test preparation industry in which charges run as high as $1,500 for 24 hours of small-group tutoring and between $150 and $750 an hour for one-on-one tutoring.
Colleges, fearful of losing out to rivals or not getting a high ranking in the widely read, annual U.S. News & World Report on higher education, have also gotten caught up in the test-preparation sweepstakes. This year Baylor University in Waco, Texas, offered its incoming freshmen a $300 credit at its campus bookstore if they retook their SAT's, and Baylor students who raised their test score by 50 points were rewarded with a $1,000-a-year merit scholarship.
Behind this crisis over standardized testing is the growing belief, as William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, observed, that standardized tests are "incredibly imprecise" at measuring academic ability and predicting how well a student will perform in four years of college. This fall at the annual meeting of the 11,000-member National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the doubts of admissions directors such as Fitzsimmons took center stage. NACAC members were, however, willing to do more than just voice their doubts about the reliability of standardized tests and the special burden they place on students from the socio-economic groups that do poorly on them. NACAC members talked at length about taking steps that in the future would reduce the role that standardized tests play in college admissions.
The question for the NACAC and for students across the country is, What to put in place of the tests? An "A" in a suburban high school or an elite prep school can be very different from an "A" in an inner-city high school, where half the students drop out by their senior year.
At the college in which I teach, the answer we hit upon several years ago was to go cold turkey with regard to standardized test scores. We stopped asked for them, starting with the high school graduating class of 2005, and we have not looked back. We find that we are getting just as good students as we got when we used standardized tests, and we are benefiting from reaching out to students for whom our emphasis on grades, teacher recommendations, and writing samples is especially appealing.
At its annual meeting the NACAC took a middle-of-the road stance on standardized testing. While few of its college admissions directors were willing to commit themselves to going test-optional in the future, they were prepared to consider reducing their reliance on standardized tests represented by the SAT AND ACT. In its 2008 report, the NACAC underscored its belief that these standardized tests "should not be considered as sole predictors of true college success" but instead viewed as one of many indicators of a student's potential.
There is every reason to see this middle-of-the-road step as a good beginning. The original idea behind standardized testing for college admissions, as Nicholas Lemann pointed out a decade ago in "The Big Test," was to expand the pool of college students, and in 2008 we are only building on history if we take that original idea further.
The catch is that we need to keep in mind that fixing our standardized testing problem, like fixing our broken banking system, cannot be done on the cheap. If colleges and universities are going to move past their current, undue reliance on standardized testing, they are going to have to invest more money in their admissions procedures and staffs.
For schools with freshmen classes under 500, such an adjustment should be a smooth one. But for schools with freshmen classes numbering in the thousands, such change will be difficult if they are to avoid creating unwieldy admissions bureaucracies. The good news is that if colleges and universities can break the hold that standardized testing has on them, they will not just become more diverse. They will increasingly find themselves enrolling students with skills and interests that once went undervalued.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."