I had the flu the first time I took the SAT. When the disappointing scores arrived, the principal suggested that I retake it. The next results were much better and - here's a revelation -commensurate with my high school grades. Did my taking the SAT prove that I did better when I didn't have the flu?
The University of California's recent proposal to eliminate SAT scores in its admission process has generated conversation about standardized exams. Some distinguished New England institutions already have dropped the SAT requirement for admission. The intention of these exams is to provide a uniform method of comparing all students. Although they may be helpful in assessing a student's progress and academic achievement, many college administrators and faculty are re-examining the priority of standardized tests as primary admission criteria.
When in his teens, with his grades at the bottom of his class, Winston Churchill asked his mother why exams always questioned what he did not know rather than what he knew about a subject. Are “make-or-break” SAT/ACT tests a fair determination of how students will perform in college compared with the record of high school studies, co-curricular activities, community involvement, artistic and other achievement, teacher and counselor recommendations, personal interviews, and other measures of potential college success? Are tests the best way to predict suitability for college admission, awarding scholarships, or honors-program placement? Or are high school grades and those other factors more important in assessing college applications?
Levels and standards of educational opportunity, budgets, and human resources vary among school districts. Many families invest hundreds of dollars on preparatory programs, tutors, and multiple tests, while others struggle to pay for one test. Much discussion has focused on possible ethnic and regional biases or influences in the tests themselves. Test site locations and test anxiety are variables in the standardized testing process. Variations in educational opportunity are not represented in test assessments.
Do test scores result from accumulated knowledge, test preparation, or a better school system? Do students spend time and resources preparing for admission exams while they could be involved in other educational experiences? Some now question the overall amount and type of student testing. “Objective” tests may measure certain types of knowledge, with an advantage to those who test well, read fast, and recall facts. Several recent studies, including research at the University of California, suggest tutorial and test-prep programs have a minimal effect on actual test scores. Perhaps prospective college students should invest more time and money on the arts, community service, reading, or scientific research.
Some argue that uniform tests predict college success. Exams may provide insight into acquired information in certain subjects or what a student has memorized. However, those tests are not designed to measure motivation, work ethic, or ability to think critically. Workplace or community challenges generally do not offer four possible answers, one of which is “all of the above.” Life and success require more than a recollection of facts. They require critical thinking, thoughtful analysis, verbal and written communication, collaboration, common sense, and cultural perspective. These are hallmarks of a college education, not indicators for success on standardized tests or Jeopardy.
SAT/ACT exams are likely to remain part of college application assessment and rankings. However, they should be one measure of student achievement and potential, not the major determinant for admission. High school grades are better predictors of college achievement. Unlike a one-day test, grades can reflect commitment, sustained work, artistic talent, communication, and analytical skills not readily measured on objective tests. Admission tests are appropriate if understood and kept in perspective by students and educators. Standardized admission test scores result from several hours of taking a multiple-choice exam. A student's record of achievement in academics, leadership, and service is the culmination of several years of work.
This week on National Public Radio, some high school seniors read their college application essays. They were provocative, insightful, interesting, and indicative of students who will succeed in college and life. I would be happy to have any of those students enroll at Heidelberg College, regardless of their standardized scores, whether or not they had the flu when they took the SAT or ACT.
Dr. Richard H. Owens is the president of Heidelberg College in Tiffin.