The school in Waco, Texas, offered enrolling students a $300 bookstore credit for retaking the college entrance test and $1,000 if their scores rose 50 points or more. The carrot prompted a wave of criticism, on campus and nationally, as an unethical bid to boost the school’s rankings.
The practice was first described in a story by the Lariat student newspaper. Of the school’s roughly 3,000 incoming freshmen, 861 received the bookstore credit for retaking the exam and 150 boosted their scores enough for the $1,000-a-year merit aid.
“Was the financial incentive, at a minimum, did it have the appearance of impropriety, and was it going to raise unnecessary questions? Yeah, I think we goofed on that,” spokesman John Barry told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Barry defended the program’s intent, which he said wasn’t to boost Baylor’s average SAT scores or by extension its ranking but rather to distribute more aid to students. He said 177 students who retook the test earned scores that qualified them for yet more merit aid that the university awards based on SAT scores.
Still, Baylor’s practice was widely criticized as at least partly a ploy to try to boost the average SAT scores it can report to U.S. News & World Report magazine for its annual college rankings, in which Baylor has plainly stated in its strategic plan that it hopes to rise. It was ranked 76th this year.
“Baylor has become the poster child for test-score misuse,” Schaeffer said. “There is no other plausible explanation for what they did other than gaming their test score averages.”
If Baylor had leftover money to award, he said, it easily could have used factors such as grades or the SAT scores students had already submitted, rather than paying them to retake the nearly 4-hour exam.
Sophomore Emanuel Gawrieh told the Lariat that Baylor was simply paying for higher scores and rankings.
“We’re at a Christian institution where morals and values are supposed to be all that it’s about. That was stretched and left behind in this decision,” Gawrieh said. “I know someone who had to work all summer just to pay for books, but the entire freshman class had a chance to sit for a few hours and get paid for it.”
The controversy comes just a few weeks after the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a report calling for standardized tests to be de-emphasized in college admissions. The report also restated NACAC’s position opposing linking merit aid to minimum test scores a practice Barry noted is still common at many institutions besides Baylor.
The Baylor situation has illustrated how “the misuse of admissions tests in the rankings are driving colleges and universities to behavior that is perhaps unfortunate,” David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research, said Thursday.
Barry said Baylor had moved its admissions process so far forward to accommodate students and parents that many incoming freshmen hadn’t taken the exam for well over a year, and might be expected to score better and thus qualify for more aid.
Now, he said, Baylor would still try to communicate to students that retaking the exam may be worthwhile. But, he added, “We have heard the criticism, we understand the criticism, and I would say it’s unlikely we would issue cash incentives again.”
Asked several times what role, if any, a desire to move up in the U.S. News rankings played, Barry replied it would be unreasonable to expect such an effect. The incoming class’s average SAT score did rise from 1200 last spring to 1210 by the time school started, a small boost that Barry noted can’t be fully attributed to the incentive program, given that the scores didn’t come from precisely the same group of students.
Schaeffer, of FairTest, said that if Baylor did want to boost its rankings, the plan might have backfired. SAT scores account for only 7.5 percent of the rankings, while peer reputation counts for 25 percent.
“They are damaging themselves in the eyes of the higher education community, which will hurt them in U.S. News rankings,” he said.
In another controversy, the University of Michigan Law School has recently faced criticism from legal bloggers over a new program in which it will admit Michigan undergraduates who have a 3.8 GPA but don’t submit LSAT scores. Some called it a back-handed attempt to avoid submitting LSAT scores that might drag down Michigan’s average.
Sarah Zearfoss, the school’s assistant dean and admissions director, said the program would have a negligible effect on its numbers and was intended to attract students who might be scared away by Michigan’s high average LSAT but who, their grades suggest, will succeed in law school. The school expected the program to draw no more than five or 10 students.
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