I understand and accept the validity of the major criticism of standardized testing in higher education. Research has found repeatedly something that, subjectively, we all know: test scores are sensitive to the amount of test-specific preparation that the student receives. I do believe that standardized tests measure some useful academic skills, but the truth is that the difference between an ACT 25 and 29 is often thousands of dollars of expensive test prep courses and tutoring rather than a meaningful indicator that the two students are different. In short, money and resources can readily turn a 22 into a 25 or a high-20s to a low-30s.

The reason is simply repetition and familiarity with the exam. No test prep is going to prepare you for the exact questions you will see on the test, but they're excellent at drilling students on what each part of the test is and how to analyze the possible answers. Test prep is possible outside the confines of a paid prep course; however, that requires a very young person to be disciplined enough to figure out what needs to be done (lots of practice questions / sections / tests), how to find them, and regular application of time to them. Not a lot of high school kids lacking guidance are going to do that on their own.

So, with many high profile universities going "test optional" for admissions, the enormous (and very good) University of California system has followed suit and announced plans to phase out the tests. This met with predictable widespread applause from everyone who has internalized the message that testing is bad, testing is racist, and testing is classist. All of these things are true.

At the same time, I think the UC move highlights some of the extreme disingenuousness of the testing-optional trend, and how the headline news stories misrepresent what is actually happening when reporting that another school has made the change. There is a lot going on here, so bear with me.

First and foremost, in the specific case of UC the faculty voted to *replace the SAT/ACT with a new standardized test of the system's own devising.* That option was not endorsed by the regents but it is currently "being studied." Sounds an awful lot like the UC's major concern is not that standardized testing is bad, but that the money devoted to admissions testing by schools and students in California is leaving the state. If standardized tests have the flaws that critics have repeatedly highlighted, replacing one standardized test with another offers no improvement. "But if only the ACT were better" is not the argument; the argument, which has ample support, is that on any standardized test it is possible to game the outcomes with parental wealth.

Second, I have never heard a convincing explanation of what is going to replace standardized testing in admissions. High school grades? Come on. Not only are they inflated (and uneven among different schools) beyond any meaningful interpretation, but in what world are they not subject to boosts from parental wealth? Are the kids who do not have to work during the schoolyear not at a significant advantage to poor kids who do?

What about other applicant attributes? Well, extracurricular activities are a great proxy for family/parental resources. They require time and money, sometimes in very large amounts.

Written application materials? The hiring of coaches, tutors, and editors can dramatically improve an application essay much more than they can boost performance on a test.

A final important point is to read "optional" literally. Every student who thinks his or her SAT/ACT score is impressive is going to submit that score anyway. All the rich people will still have their kids taking the tests. If it helps your file, you will include your score. Nobody's going to ace the SAT and keep it a secret on principle. Not reporting a test score will quickly become a way to identify the files of applicants who didn't feel like their test score was impressive, or assumed they'd do poorly so didn't take it.

In short the process of trying to improve admissions always runs into the same wall. Once we all agree standardized tests have problems, we either do nothing (because we can't think of a better alternative) or we switch to something that has all the same inherent biases and flaws as the SAT.

I have heard all of the same things you have, about how a new and better admissions process needs to consider each applicant's file holistically. It doesn't sound persuasive in my experience. It sounds like a subjective system that creates the ability to see whatever an admissions committee wants to see out of any file. And if you think lawsuits are a problem now, with testing, wait until you see the legal fees and battles that result from "We will read and interpret each file individually and holistically." So either that will turn into a rubric (a score system awarding points for various criteria the applicant meets) or it will be essentially subjective but with some reference to objective criteria that – see above – are all biased on parental income anyway.

I don't have the answer. I wish I did – I would sell it, at great expense for academia. What I do have is enough cynicism about the system to believe that this is a lot more about money than it is about improving admissions. Going test-optional is appealing to two types of schools in particular. One is the low end of schools struggling to get bodies in classrooms, schools hoping that waiving the test will net them a few extra apps and admits. The other is high-end schools (University of Chicago, Harvard, Vanderbilt, etc.) who can afford to do whatever they want because they'll never stop receiving tens of thousands of extremely high-quality apps every year anyway.

For all the publicity the UC decision received – and god knows any media attention is short-lived these days – I'm afraid it created an inaccurate impression of what was decided. "Ahh, no more SATs!" is the gist of the headline scanned quickly on Twitter. But not only will the most well-off and ambitious students continue to take standardized tests in an effort to help themselves, the UC system whispered the part where they are tiptoeing toward making their own standardized admissions test – for which all expenses and revenue would flow to the system instead of out of state. "The pie is bad" is a different argument than "But what if we make the pie, then it's good."

I understand and have always understood exactly what it is about standardized testing that is problematic and biased. What I have never heard is a remotely convincing explanation of what is better. Every part of a student's academic life in high school is influenced by parental resources. Everything. Not just the ACT/SAT. The current arguments about the specific ways in which college admissions are unfair are going to grow substantially in volume and quantity if the ultimate replacement for testing amounts to, well, we just kinda look at the applications and take who we want to take.

Maybe that's a better system – certainly no worse a system – than the status quo of "We take kids based on their parents' ability to buy them a slightly better SAT score than the kids we don't take." The current system is a real hard system to defend, no doubt. It seems terribly basic that entities like the enormous UC system should have a firm idea of exactly what kind of new system they will be using in place of the current one before announcing a plan to jettison it. If, in a couple of years they cannot come up with a plausible alternative and revert to a different, in-house standardized test, then all they have done is pour the old wine in new bottles. Maybe that's the best that can be done, but it's certainly nothing to get excited about. It's not much of an achievement.

13 thoughts on “STANDARDIZED”

  • I am generally a proponent of standardized testing, looking at it from inside the test development world. Much of the criticism is valid and I know they (we) work hard to address it. But ultimately these tests are designed to assess if students are "college ready," if they have the study skills to perform well as a freshman college student. Test prep is a prototype of a college experience, in a way. You said it "requires a very young person to be disciplined enough to figure out what needs to be done (lots of practice questions / sections / tests), how to find them, and regular application of time to them." That sounds a lot like college level course, you get a syllabus, figure out what is being asked of you, and demonstrate that you have the discipline to apply yourself to the work necessary to master it.
    Sure the rich assholes will always have an advantage, but that would be true whether these tests exist or not, they will find a way to buy their kids into a college. But it is always possible for a smart student with educational disadvantages, to stand out and outperform the well-prepped rich kids. Standardized testing research tries to identify these students who might have been ignored or downscored due to institutional bias, etc. but they have huge blind spots so they can scarcely see where they are, let alone where they need to go.

  • Anubis Bard says:

    I can't dispute anything you say. Education is how the class system gets maintained after all. One idea I find interesting is to have public universities base their acceptance on being in the top 5% (or 8% or whatever) of each high school. Grades are useless, but being a top student is not.

    Now the parents of Little Rutherford Dimbulb the Third won't like it, since he won't be in that top 5% in Hoity Prep. And, of course his parents could decide on sending him down the road to Cesar Chavez High, where maybe they think his advantages could be better leveraged, but even so, de-segregation as a side effect is an interesting thought. And my money's not on Dimbulb to make the cut even so . . . .

  • Timely. (My 11th grade son's March SAT was cancelled 2 days before it was to occur. This morning, College Board is opening up registration for tests later this year.)

    I still don't see how a changing the admissions process or criteria can undo all prior years of inequality. It's not just test prep—kids of wealthy have fewer safety concerns, less nutritional deficit, more familial attention and encouragement, and a generally more positive academic/occupational outlook.

    But I'll repeat the key point, again—it's *always* about the money.

    [That said…and I swear it's true…my family, the males at least, are so immature for so long. We always perform well in tests and competitions, But we aren't always able to stay disciplined enough as kids to get great grades. Standardized testing is nearly a silver bullet for us.]

  • That said, after 1.5 hours on the phone, Tuesday, and (so far) 20 minutes following the guidance provided by CollegeBoard, I'm not confident he'll be able to register.
    Their systems were not prepared for the deluge. (what a great equalizer!)

  • I graduated my HS with the lowest grade point* that they ever awarded a diploma a .85 on a 4.0 scale. I got better than decent grades on the PSAT and the SAT and was second in my class on the NMSQT, in my junior year, IIRC.

    I had "bell ringing" level ADD/ADHD which pretty much made traditional learning pretty much impossible for me–about 25 or 30 years before it was diagnosed.

    I had a pulse, I was accepted to the local branch of the State Uni.

    Testing, for most people I've ever talked to was useful for them if they succeeded, otherwise not. I doubt that making entrance exams more or less important would do anywhere near as much good as knowing the students needs and desires, as well as asking them what they really want to do for a living AND walking them through some of what is needed to accomplish that goal.

    I've known people who have told me that Jon Bon Jovi isn't a "Real" rocker, 'cuz he knows how business works. Standardization comes at high cost.

    * if the stories I heard from people after the fact are true.

  • When I was a college-bound student oh so many years ago, the SAT was a boon to me; my grades were generally mediocre, but I was a whiz at standardized tests and that helped bridge some of the distance to gain entry to a top-flight university. En route to graduate school, I aced the GREs, the GMAT and even though I had no plans for law school, the LSAT. I had to be talked out of taking the MCAT just for fun.

    By contrast my son, a diligent student, is dismal at these kind of tests. I am the sort of person who has the money to pay for test tutoring, and boy did we pay. And for what? His SAT scores barely budged. Eventually we recognized that SATs had nothing to do with showing off his qualifications, and we aimed at schools that didn’t require test scores. Did that mean Yale was out of the question? Yeah, and he’ll be fine without Yale, thanks.

    Some people are just better at these stupid tests – not necessarily because they’re rich or white (although clearly that can help) but because standardized tests only test how good you are at taking standardized tests. I’ve been a student, a professor and the parent of a student, and I’ve seen no evidence that the SAT tells anything about how smart you are, how well you’ll perform as a student, or how well you’ll do in life. The SAT is about the SAT. The ACT is about the ACT. All a test can ever be is a test.

    The idea that test prep is “a prototype of a college experience” can only be true if you simplify both test prep and a college experience to the point of meaninglessness. For example, cooking a four-course gourmet dinner is a prototype of a college experience. It requires you to figure out what needs to be done and demonstrate that you have the discipline to apply yourself to the work necessary to master it. Playing poker is a prototype of a college experience. It requires you to figure out what needs to be done and demonstrate that you have the discipline to apply yourself to the work necessary to master it. And so forth.

    It may be that eliminating standardized tests from the college admissions process will force colleges to be even more arbitrary – or even more easily gamed by the wealthy – but the mere existence of the SAT and ACT imposes a cost, a literally financial cost and a figurative cost in time and effort, that would be eliminated by eliminating the test. If you’re going to make your decisions about which students to admit on unfair grounds, at least remove the extra friction of these tests.

  • Maybe university admissions staffers should adapt William F. Buckley's quip about the first hundred names in the Boston phone directory, adjusted of course to reflect overall identity group population numbers.

    Before the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, it's important to note that standardized tests are not "all" about test-taking prep, and test-taking aptitude. They separate folks already in the mix for a given tier.

    Yes, the trouble with so-called merit is that it isn't inclusive. Quite the opposite, in fact. And classist,, too. How could one reasonably be expected to know what a "yacht" is without ever having boarded one?

    If this new social justice retrofit becomes ubiquitous, the next standard to be defined down will be the value of a degree itself in absolute terms. Otherwise, dread "unfairness" will be seen in disparate graduation rates.

    In the humanities, knock yourselves out. When it comes to engineering a bridge using personal math, however, or culturally-competent medical diagnoses, it could be that many will yearn for that yoke of oppression.

  • I've been tutoring high school kids now and then, and I'm actually MORE impressed with whatever the SAT measures. You would be amazed at how many students, often very bright students, have no idea how to extract information from the written word. They get the words and sentence structure, but a paragraph explaining how car engines work or presenting a child's happy home life might as well be written in Etruscan. Being able to extract such information is more or less essential for any serious college level work.

    The math section isn't much different. The math is usually pretty straightforward stuff if you were paying attention in class, but the SAT tries to test if you can extract meaning from a graph or equation or a set of instructions. You'd be amazed at how many students have problems with this. Even if you don't go into a STEM field, those are important skills in fields like history, music and politics.

    I'm not an SAT or ACT absolutist, but I'm not sure how else a college can tell if a student will be able to do college level work. The default seems to be not to care and simply make the work simpler. I'm probably biased because my parents grew up in non-English speaking households but managed to get college degrees that gave them decently paying careers.

  • Writing sample, two-three teacher rec letters, GPA, extra-curriculars. (We all know American colleges / universities have their own in-house weighting for almost every high school, public and private, in the country.)

    Agree with Ed that these things are just as "parent salary related" as taking an SAT prep course, but I don't see how that means chipping away one unnecessary piece from the invariably imperfect pie is still a bad idea.

    Fuck the GRE too. The College Board is a shitty company that deserves to die horribly.

  • Oh, inkydinkywinky:

    You keep showing up here without having done your homework.

    To refresh you memory:
    I'm sure that somewhere (on top of the dryer or maybe behind the clothes hamper) you've got that file of evidence supporting your assertion of several months back that Ed is a supporter of Islamist terrorists. We RILLLLLLLLLLLLY want to believe that you're not a lying fuckbag who would rather shit on someone who they've never met (Ed) rather than honestly debate.
    I will stop posting things like this as soon as you quit being the lying fuckbag that you seem to be, by default.
    Fuck off, troll._______________________

    I don't keep doing this, btw, because I expect you to suddenly become something other than a lying sack of shit, but there are people who don't know you well enough to despise you and they really should get that opportunity.

  • Demo–

    I'll throw you a bone since you've worried your old imaginary one so compulsively, and you could use some flava.

    The tendentious quote/summary above is from you, not me. In the old exchange you're fixated upon, the comments to Ed's "Foreign Policy Slaw", September, 2019, I said Ed and his Western leftist ilk "mascotized and enabled" Islamist terrorists, by casting America and Israel as villainous geopolitical heavies who have driven many Muslims into the unfortunate but predictable jihadist mass murders for we bear causal responsibility too. Muslim terrorists may indeed feel validated by "Bad America, Bad Israel" leftists, but that's hardly a claim of Ed & Co. "supporting" Islamist terrorism in the sense you've burbled repetitively, you silly coot.

    On the bright side, you may yet find a place in the Biden campaign writing spittle-flecked, off-target invective, or perhaps as a sidekick to that jejune polemicist that Twitter just put in charge of checking "facts" and "integrity".

  • College Board, the company that administers the SAT, AP tests, and other college prep services is like the NCAA of testing.

    A monopoly with no accountability and a complete money suck.

    Anything that hurts their bottom line is OK with me.

  • So is the purpose of college to help separate out everyone so that we have our classes, or is it to educate people to reach our potential and also help us succeed in our careers?
    Because we're wasting a lot of potential just making barriers. Most courses you either know what you're doing or you don't, we should be concentrating on helping the most people reach their potential.
    Undergrad school needs to be funded like high school, at least for a 4 year degree-if we're going to require that as the minimum to get a good job, publicly fund it-extract a few more tax dollars from businesses that don't want to pay to train their employees. Public funding of university will pay off with more taxes paid over a lifetime anyway.

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