Saturday, February 14, 2015

Test-Optional


There is the act, and there is the explanation.  And sometimes the explanation is the more problematic of the two.

A number of years ago one of my seniors got in trouble for having a beer in his car during the junior-senior formal dance.  It wasn’t a big deal, but he was suspended for a day and required to inform the colleges to which he had applied.  Unfortunately, he took his sweet time informing his first-choice college, where he was on the Wait List, despite the fact that the college’s application clearly stated that the student was obligated to report all disciplinary infractions occurring after the application had been submitted.

By the time he reported the suspension he had been admitted off the Wait List. The Dean of Admissions, curious about the delay, required him to come to campus for a meeting.  At the meeting the student’s explanation raised more red flags than the offense.  He explained the beer in the car by saying he hadn’t planned to go to the dance.  “Didn’t you look out of place without a tux?” the Dean asked.  The student responded that he was wearing a tux.  “So you drive around the West End of Richmond on Friday nights wearing a tux?” the Dean asked incredulously.  The disciplinary offense wasn’t serious enough to rescind the acceptance, but the explanation certainly gave the Dean second thoughts.

Several weeks ago Virginia Commonwealth University became the newest member of the test-optional club, those colleges and universities (more than 850, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) that allow at least some applicants to forego submitting standardized test scores.  The change in policy was announced by President Michael Rao during his State of the University address.

VCU will no longer require applicants with a high school GPA of 3.3 or above to submit SAT scores.  All applicants to some programs, including engineering, will be required to submit test scores, as will candidates for university scholarships.  In announcing the changed policy, President Rao said that students will no longer have to “pass” a test that he described as “fundamentally flawed.”  According to VCU’s Vice Provost for Strategic Enrollment Management, the change means that VCU will be able to admit 300 students who wouldn’t have made the cut a year ago.

I applaud VCU and other institutions that have become test-optional.  The frenzy over standardized testing in the college admissions process is not healthy for anyone (except perhaps the test prep industry), and I’m glad that there are institutions that are questioning how much value is added by test scores in predicting student success.  A 2014 study of 33 test-optional colleges and universities by Bill Hiss, long-time Dean of Admissions at Bates College (which became test-optional in 1984, the first school in my memory) showed few significant differences in graduation rates and cumulative GPAs between submitters and non-submitters.  VCU’s decision seems to have been grounded in its own institutional research showing that high school GPA is the most useful predictor of success at VCU, and I believe that VCU is one of the institutions that has done significant work in looking at non-cognitive assessment in the admissions process.

It’s VCU’s explanation for the decision that I find curious.

President Rao’s doesn’t give any explanation for his declaration that the SAT is “fundamentally flawed.” (I’m also not sure what he means by “passing” the SAT.)  I have never been accused of being an apologist for the College Board (see previous post), but I don’t consider the test fundamentally flawed.  Like many things in college admissions, it may measure privilege rather than merit, but in my experience it is not the case that SAT scores are random.  With rare exceptions, my best students score well and my weakest students don’t.  The College Board is certainly open for criticism on many fronts, whether it be changing SAT from standing for Scholastic Aptitude Test to standing for…well, SAT or its about-face on test prep from claiming one couldn’t prepare to advertising itself as the SAT-prep experts, but I don’t consider the test itself as invalid.  What is fundamentally flawed is the way test scores are used rather than the test itself.

I’m also curious about VCU’s decision to continue to require the SAT for some applicants. Is the SAT not fundamentally flawed for engineering applicants, merit scholarship candidates, and students with a GPA below 3.2?  That raises a broader philosophical question.  Can an institution be partially test-optional, or is being partially test-optional like being partially pregnant?

Finally, I wonder about the claim that being test-optional will allow VCU to admit 300 applicants it wouldn’t have admitted a year ago, especially in light of the fact that in the same interview the Vice Provost stated that VCU doesn’t have an SAT cutoff score and that the university claims to do holistic admission.  Holistic admission means that a college or university has the ability to ignore factors that aren’t relevant for a student’s admission, including low test scores, so VCU could have admitted those 300 students.  That would suggest that VCU, like other institutions, has become test-optional for profile protection/enhancement reasons rather than philosophical reasons.  

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