My Turn: High-stakes testing leads to high-stakes cheating

For the Monitor
Published: 5/12/2019 12:30:16 AM

The University of New Hampshire announced on Monday that it will no longer require applicants to provide SAT/ACT scores during a three-year pilot program.

The public university is the latest in a growing roster to recognize that the standardized test is not a reliable predictor of college success. This is a step in the right direction – for both applicants and the university.

As the recent admissions scandal so starkly demonstrates, high-stakes testing sets the stage for high-stakes cheating. When a single score is viewed to make or break a student’s future, it inspires all kinds of bad behavior.

The gaming of college entrance exams has been going on for years. The SAT, once thought to be the great equalizer, is now little more than a barometer of socioeconomic status.

Students from advantaged homes are destined to make their way into the most selective colleges and universities, the highest paid jobs, and the most coveted ZIP codes. The notion that those who succeed have earned that success strictly on the basis of aptitude and determination is completely misguided.

All of the factors that we know to be the perks of privilege – the independent college counselor, the pre-college enrichment experiences, test coaching, legacy preference, athletic recruiting, prep schools – give students from wealthy backgrounds an edge over those from low-income homes. The outrageous actions of the parents and opportunists involved in the scandal – from the manipulation of standardized test scores to the fabrication of athletic prowess – underscore the extent to which the proverbial deck is stacked in favor of those from affluent backgrounds.

Ten years ago, my home institution opted out of standardized testing. We did so in large part due to concerns about socioeconomic inequities. As the saying goes, we value what we measure. We wanted to make it clear to students that we value work ethic over wealth. The other important factor – for Worcester Polytechnic Institute and hundreds of other institutions that have adopted test-optional admissions policies – is the reality that standardized test scores do not predetermine academic success. Our analysis showed that entrance exam scores consistently underestimated the academic success of women and underrepresented students.

The best indicators of success for our students are (drumroll, please) the rigor of their high school courses and their grade performance. Imagine! That’s likely because academic success at many institutions is based on tenacity and resourcefulness. There’s no answer key for that.

As a longtime college administrator, this scandal hits uncomfortably close to home. The notion that the college selection process rewards merit – hard work, innate talent, persistence and passion – is even less true today than it was decades ago. Advantaged students are more likely to gain admission to and attend institutions with better faculty, better support systems and higher graduation rates than students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The net result is the stratification of our higher educational system into the haves and have-nots, a system in which the students who arguably need the most support end up enrolling at the institutions with the fewest resources, and vice versa.

For higher education leaders, enrollment professionals, educators, elected officials and policy-makers, the admissions scam is a call to action. It challenges us to let go of outdated modes of measuring student success. As philosopher Matthew Stewart argues, “We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.”

The economic mobility that has long been America’s greatest strength is in peril. There is no better mechanism for mobility than education in general and higher education in particular.

Unless those of us in positions of power begin to deal the cards more equitably, we are all likely to lose.

(Kristin Tichenor is senior vice president of enrollment and institutional strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a participant in the film “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a documentary on the impacts of the SAT and ACT.)


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