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Pushing The Debate Over the Usefulness of ACT and SAT

Despite changes over the years in the content and administration of college admissions tests, the ACT and SAT are still controversial tools in evaluating student achievement, according to a new study.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling released a report this week about the exams, not as a prescriptive, but to continue engaging the public in debate. NACAC officials say the report should help colleges and counselors better understand the role of standardized tests, which have been criticized for bias and inaccurate measurement of a student’s college potential.

“These tests are a central component of a mechanism for allocating scarce resources — places at the nation’s most prestigious universities. Simply because of that role, college admissions tests will always be a focus of public debate,” writes author Rebecca Zwick, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Zwick says colleges must continue to do research that shows whether test scores and other admission criteria predict student performance. The paper also asks readers to ponder unresolved questions such as “What does a test score say about a college applicant?” “What influence do test scores have in predicting whether students will succeed in college?” “Do institutions clearly articulate the reasons why standardized tests are included as requirements for admissions?”

The ACT and SAT are the two college admissions tests used. Both have recently evolved. In 1994, the SAT allowed calculators on the math portion and in 2005 added a writing portion. In 2002, the ACT added a writing portion. Zwick writes that part of the concern is that if the SAT is not linked to high school courses, is it intended to gauge intellectual aptitude or academic achievement.

The nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing contends that the SAT and ACT underpredict performances of females, older students and students whose native language is not English. The group advocates scrapping admissions exams in favor of a comprehensive review of a student’s high school record.

“Test scores are a common yardstick, and that’s a falsehood unless the yardstick is made of elastic or silly putty,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the Boston-based center. “Kids whose parents have money can buy them higher scores on the SAT or ACT through coaching courses and private tutors.” to help them beat the test.”

SAT officials say they are sensitive to fairness, but add that the real inequality is America’s unequal education system.

“The SAT is, together with high school grades, the number one predictor in first year [performance] of college. It’s more predictive than high school grades alone,” says Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board, which puts out the SAT. 

But Dr. Mary Beth Gasman, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania University’s Graduate School of Education, says the tests are overused. She says prestigious institutions are happy to tout high college exam scores to boost their own images.

“Tests only have limited ability to predict success. They tend to be relied upon heavily by people in admissions,” Gasman says. “You can’t expect people to perform equally on the test when you have not prepared them equally.”

David Hawkins, a policy director for NACAC, says its research is a conversation piece.

“We really believe it’s important for postsecondary institutions to think independently about the use of standardized tests. A. why are they using it. and B. knowing what it’s telling,” Hawkins says.

–Natalie Y. Moore


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