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Toss Out Standardized Tests for College

By Diane Flynn Keith, Editor of Homefires, Author of Carschooling

The headline of a recent Associated Press article read, "College Board Proposes SAT Overhaul." The article explained that the SAT I, a standardized test used to determine a student's eligibility for college admission, may be changed by the College Board which produces the test, in an effort to appease its biggest customer, the University of California. In 2001, UC President, Richard Atkinson, called for UC to drop the SAT I saying that students were wasting their money and time preparing for a test that critics claim is racially and gender biased. The article indicated that the two-part verbal and math test may be revised to include a writing test, the elimination of analogy questions, and a reinforced math section.

There is no evidence to indicate that the changes will improve the overall assessment capability of the SAT, which has been shown to be unreliable, prejudiced, and over-rated. The SAT is used primarily on the East and West coasts of the country, while the ACT is the college-entrance exam used for students in the Midwest and the South. In numerous studies (many of which you can read online at Fair Test, the national advocacy organization for fair and open testing at http://www.fairtest.org/), both exams have been shown to be better predictors of parental income than college eligibility. The fact is that students score an additional 30 points for every $10,000 of their parent's income. Students with more income at their disposal can afford the expensive test preparation programs from The Princeton Review and Kaplan, which have been shown to increase scores by 100 points or more. As mentioned previously, both tests have proven to be culturally and gender biased. Yet, despite the criticisms against it, UC and other meritocracies are junkies for the "one-score-means-all" testing that labels applicants as academically worthy or unworthy of higher education.

In other headlines, grade inflation was reported at Harvard University. An article in The New York Times published last November told that a university study on grade inflation found that, "nearly half the grades at Harvard University last year were A or A minus, a steep increase from just 10 years earlier." A whopping 82 percent of Harvard's graduates now receive academic honors!

The Harvard dean of undergraduate education tried to explain the phenomenon, "With such a narrow range of grades available, faculty find it difficult to distinguish adequately between work of differing quality; they may also be unable to make such distinctions clear to students." Huh? Doesn't A mean excellent, C mean average, and F mean fail? If everybody gets an A, what's an A really worth? What does it all mean?

It's not just Harvard that engages in what Yale refers to as the "upward grade homogenization." In an address to the Virginia Association of Scholars, Bradford P. Wilson, Executive Director of the National Association of Scholars, said, "there is substantial and credible information that grades have been inflating over a thirty-year period at American campuses of every variety."

As evidence, he refers his audience to the book, When Hope and Fear Collide by Levine and Cureton. The book reports the results of surveys of students at every type of institution from two-year colleges to research universities. Bradford expounds, "What can be said is that, while grade inflation is universal, the Ivies have elevated it to an art form. At Princeton, the median GPA for the class of 1973 was 3.078. The median GPA for the class of 1997? 3.422. At Dartmouth, the average GPA had risen from 3.06 to 3.23 from 1968 to 1994. At Harvard, 46 percent of the undergraduate grades given during the 1996-97 year were A-s and As, more than doubled the figure for 1966, which was 22 percent. The percentage of C+s and below has fallen from 28 percent in 1966-67 to 9 percent in 1991-92."

Frankly, I think it's uplifting to know that we have gotten so much smarter over the years, and I'm sure you'll agree it is reassuring that 91% of Harvard's undergraduates will never be called "average."

What's astounding to me is that so many teachers, including Harvard professors, capitulate to the squeaky wheels -- students and parents who diligently campaign for better grades. Students don't just accept the grade they get anymore. If a grade below B affects a student's self-esteem or causes prospective employers and graduate admissions committees to ignore their application they will utilize any resources and influence available to them to improve their grade. So "average" students may have transcripts indicating superior performance just because they have an unrelenting confrontational nature, or the ability to grease the coffers for a better grade. Are you appalled?

I'm not. What's appalling to me is the existence of tests and grades at the college level at all. Not only is it apparent that they don't measure much of anything anyway, but presumably people are there because they want to learn. I should think that for those individuals who have made a choice to attend college, undergoing assessment and grading exercises would be insulting, or at least seem absurd.

Why aren't colleges more like libraries? Why can't you check into the classes you want to take, learn what you need, and check out again? Why must you submit to any measurement standard to go to college? You don't have to take a test to go to the library or to research on the Internet -- and all of the knowledge in the world is there for the taking. Why is it that you can't just sign up and go to the college of your choice? That would change the balance of power a bit, wouldn't it? If everyone applied to the most popular public college, you could solve the demand with admittance by lottery. As for private colleges, they could take anyone willing to pay the tuition on a first come, first serve basis. Student-consumers would just buy the classes they need and move on. Those who needed tuition assistance could get it based on financial need -- not scholarship.

I have heard the argument that community colleges are more user-friendly for those not inclined to take the SAT, although you still have to take placement tests before you can enroll in many of the classes they offer. Lots of people attend two-year colleges to get their "General Ed" requirements out of the way before transferring to a four-year college or university. Which leads me to another question.

Why do degree-seeking college students have to take two years of "General Ed" classes that often repeat information learned in highschool before they can take classes that are relevant to their interests? Why is college four years long? Why do you have to complete four years of college (including subjects that may not be relevant to your major) before you can work on a Master's degree or PhD?

Why do colleges subject their all-volunteer student body to grading? Remember, college isn't mandatory. There isn't a compulsory attendance law for college - not yet, anyway. Aren't most people who attend college adult-age? Can't adults determine for themselves what they do or don't need to learn in order to improve the quality of their own lives? Why are college students treated like school children? (Not that I think school children should have to undergo our myopic preoccupation with assessment.) Why must they take standardized tests that rarely show proficiency or knowledge gained? I don't know why we submit to such nonsense just to get a piece of paper called a diploma - and why we believe that it somehow proves that we have credibility and value as human beings.

We have made college such a benchmark for "getting a good job" that the majority of young students who attend college are doing so only for that reason. They often have no clue what they really want to do with their lives -- but someone has brainwashed them into believing that whatever they finally decide, having a college degree will make it easier to achieve. I don't necessarily agree, and yes, I know I'm in the minority.

Why do we accept that most students should go to college immediately upon graduating from high school? We've sold almost everyone on the idea that the only way to get ahead in life is to, "get good SAT scores, to get into a good college and get good grades, so you can get a good job, in order to have a good life, buying good stuff." Good grief!

Why do we believe that mantra when all around us there is evidence to the contrary? What could highschool graduates do instead of going to college? Well, they could learn a trade (everything from carpentry and plumbing to computer programming), they could scrape by with odd jobs and travel the world, they could live really avant-garde lifestyles, they could go into sales (in all of its many forms), they could become artists, dancers, musicians, writers, truck drivers, gardeners, aroma-therapists, child-care providers, big wave specialists, athletes, wilderness survival experts, critter sitters, house cleaners, party planners, they could start their own businesses, they could learn how to invest their money so they don't have to work -- they could take whatever knowledge or skill they do possess based on their interests and figure out a way to make a living doing what they love. There are so many possibilities.

The real question is more about perceptions of these things. Anyone who is not a "professional" (read without a degree) is somehow substandard in our society (the exceptions being famous actors, musicians, athletes, and supermodels).

People in the trades or who create a niche for themselves by the-seat-of-their-pants are often snubbed as non-intellectual. We have placed intellectualism on a pedestal above individualism. We don't value the person who can build a house as much as we value the person with a degree in architectural design. We don't value a good storyteller as much as we do the professor who teaches 19th century literature. We don't value the car mechanic as much as we do the college-degreed V.P. in charge of business information systems for the company that designs and manufactures the cars. We don't value the person who keeps their word, as much as we do the attorney who will sue the person who doesn't.

Many jobs that are based on really useful skills are discounted, and the people who hold the jobs (but not a college degree) are relegated to a "lower class" in our society. It's almost as if the message being marketed is that if you don't pass the tests and make the grade, then you must not be worthwhile.

In my opinion we need to rethink college. We need to question the college institution including its function, structure, and value. Many aspects of it seem a bit outdated in this day and age. College entrance testing not only fails to provide equity for all applicants, the SAT and ACT testing process itself supports passive, rote memorization techniques that are contrary to new research about how people think and reason.

Standardized tests whether used for college entrance or to gauge subject proficiency to determine grades in colleges, do not measure the ability of the student to write or speak, nor do they evaluate musical or artistic ability, or kinesthetic and spatial awareness, or the ability to build and repair things, or a variety of other proficiencies that are better indicators of whether or not an individual will achieve real-world success.

If you want to know why colleges persist in using faulty tests like the SAT and ACT, and why the majority inflate grades, consult author Peter Sacks who offers this explanation in his book, Standardized Minds: The High Price Of America's Testing Culture And What We Can Do To Change It, "…standardized tests serve the perceived economic interests of colleges and universities, particularly their need for prestige, which is often the main asset they have to market to potential 'customers.'

Pick up any of the numerous commercially published guides to colleges, universities, and graduate schools: High among the factors the guides use to rate institutions are average standardized test scores of students admitted. In a sense, Harvard would not be Harvard if those math or verbal SAT scores averaging 750 or so didn't leap from the page at readers of U.S. News and World Report. Test scores have become so important to institutions that some have resorted to fudging their numbers to jack up their averages, feeding the public mythology that high scores are a true measure of the quality of its students and therefore the quality of the institution."

The author speculates that the reason that testing and grading are so prevalent among academic institutions is because, "it is a highly effective means of social control, predominately serving the interests of the nation's elites. Most people would agree that, in a democracy, merit is a good basis for deciding who gets ahead. The rub is how you define merit. We have settled on a system that defines merit in large part as the potential to achieve according to test results. It turns out that the lion's share of the 'potential' in our society goes to those with well-to-do, highly educated parents."

Not only does testing and grading perpetuate a class struggle, the idea that a college degree makes one "better" is simply wrong thought. We need to get over the idea that trades people and self-directed workers are somehow inferior to those who go to college in order to open up the options for all individuals to have self-respecting and happy career and work choices.

Just as most of you have re-thought elementary and highschool education by homeschooling your children, re-think the option of college. Construct your curriculum around your children's interests and support their innate intelligences. Let them know that whether they go to college or not, there are plenty of opportunities for them to have productive lives -- and support and encourage the expression of their desire to have a career doing what they love.

Meanwhile, if you are sufficiently outraged by the biases of SATs and the popular trend among universities to inflate grades, you might want to consider supporting the abolishment of standardized testing and grading. A new, grassroots, non-profit organization called SAT or Students Against Testing is looking for activists. Find out more about their organization at: www.NoMoreTests.com

Copyright 2002-2005, Diane Flynn Keith, All Rights Reserved.