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SAT, ACT, IB, AND AP: New Commission Report Studies Use of Standardized Tests in College Admission

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“Educational quality has nothing to do, or very little to do, with actual average SAT scores.”

Although college admission exams such as the ACT and SAT provide useful information to the college and universities that use them to make admission decisions, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams may be more predictive of first-year and overall grades in college because they are more closely linked to high school curriculum. So says a new report from the Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission, which was created by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).  The commission was charged with tackling the long-standing concerns regarding standardized tests, and the role of the ACT and SAT in determining who gains entry to the nation’s colleges and universities. The report was released on September 23 at NACAC’s annual conference.

“It’s electrifying to both sides of the desk,” Louis L. Hirsh, admissions director at the University of Delaware, told the New York Times. “To counselors who are worried about the stresses that the SAT places on the kids, and from the college end, the people whom all of us respect are looking at a test that all of us use and asking all of us to be more thoughtful about how they use it and what role it plays in our admissions.”

According to the report, standardized admission tests such as the SAT and ACT are not the most important factor in college admission decisions, but colleges and universities have “attributed increasing importance to standardized tests over the past decade.” In fact, a recent NACAC survey found that 62 percent of colleges attribute “considerable importance” to standardized tests in the admission decision, ranking it third behind high school grades in college prep classes (76 percent) and strength of curriculum (62 percent), but ahead of essays (28 percent), class rank (23 percent), counselor recommendations (21 percent), and other factors. Subject tests such as the AP and IB were given considerable importance by only 8 percent of colleges.

To a much greater extent than the ACT or SAT, the AP exams and Subject Tests administered by the College Board and the IB exams measure knowledge of subject matter covered in high school courses, the report finds. Additionally, it notes that there is very little expensive test preparation associated with them. Test prep for the ACT and SAT, however, can cost thousands of dollars and, as the report points out, often leads to an increase of only 20 to 30 points on the SAT scale.

The commission also chides U.S. News and World Report for using test scores as a measure of institutional quality. It adds that the use of admission test scores as college ranking criteria creates undue pressure on admission officers to pursue increasingly high test scores. As William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard University and chairman of the commission, told the audience at the NACAC conference, “At Harvard we get terrific students, and we turn out terrific students later on. Is that due to Harvard or is that due to the students to begin with? Who knows? There are fabulous institutions with relatively low test-score averages that are absolutely first-rate, that take students from point A to point Z,” he said. “Educational quality has nothing to do, or very little to do, with actual average SAT scores.”

The report also cautions states against using standardized admission tests as evaluators of student achievement—particularly when high-stakes accountability measures are included—unless the tests are significantly modified. “Efforts to ensure that schools are preparing their students for college should not look to a single admission exam for an assessment of their progress, but to the strength of the school’s curriculum and students’ performance in those courses as their primary indicator,” the report reads.

One possible future for college admission tests that the commission includes in its report is the development of curriculum-based achievement tests that are designed in consultation with colleges, secondary schools, and state and federal agencies. According to the report, these tests have a number of attractive qualities. “Their use in college admission sends a message to students that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum,” it reads.

The complete report is available at http://www.nacacnet.org/MemberPortal/News/Press/testingcommissionreport.htm.

“Study of Standardized Admissions Tests Is Big Draw at College Conference” is available athttp://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/education/29admissions.html.

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