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Test-driven admissions: ETS responds to criticisms of SATs – Educational Testing Service

After decades of criticism that standardized testing is culturally biased, officials from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) say they have made great strides in eliminating those biases.


 Officials at ETS, which administers the SATs, PSATs and many of the other standardized tests used by colleges and universities, also say that through their collaborative efforts with national organizations, students of color are now better prepared to take those exams — and score better on them [see accompanying tables] — than a generation ago.


 Eleanor Horne, corporate secretary and executive assistant to the president of ETS, says that critics miss the point. She believes that standardized tests which show different average scores between racial/ethnic groups and genders indicate that the exams are doing their job — which is to show the differences in what the groups know and can do. The tests, she says, do not create the differences.


 Richard Duran, professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara, concurs. He says that in terms of academic readiness, the tests are useful because they show that many students of color — particularly African-Americans and Latinos — “are underprepared. We have to face up to it. These students have not been treated fairly…. [Their problem is] not being Anglo and coming from the inner city. [The lack of preparedness] is not solely a school problem, but a life-experience issue.”


 Review and Modification


Since the 1970s, ETS has had a sensitivity review process to eliminate stereotypes and offensive items. Since the 1980s, ETS has engaged in systematic reviews to ensure fairness in the tests — checking to see that certain groups are not being given an advantage over others.


In 1987, ETS reviewed its corporate bylaws and decided in 1988 to adopt new ones that would include as one of its primary objectives the improvement of educational opportunities for African-American, Latino and disadvantaged students. The ETS Board of Trustees then committed more resources to this endeavor. According to ETS literature: “The broadening of the mission statement is an important milestone in a long history of corporate commitment to addressing issues of educational equity and access.”


Horne says that for more than two decades, ETS has actively assisted people of color to better perform on standardized tests and has worked with a number of national organizations — including the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the National Urban League, and ASPIRA (a Latino youth organization).


One organization with which ETS does not have a formal relationship is the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). Both ETS and HACU would like to rectify that situation. Dr. Antonio Flores, the new president of HACU, concedes that his organization is new and must take some responsibility for the lack of collaboration. “We intend to pursue a relationship with ETS,” Flores says.


ETS also contributes to programs such as Arizona State University’s Project 1000, whose mission involves the recruitment and retention of people of color in the Southwestern United States. ETS also funds Project 1000’s electronic “Hispanic Experts Database” and the “Directory of Hispanic Experts.”


Multiplying the Effect


The main thrust behind the efforts of ETS “is to reach those who reach students so it can have a multiplied effect. We train the teachers and the counselors. We provide them with training, books and resources,” says Horne.


One example of this is an ETS-initiated project that involves Nissan and HBCUs. This project, which has been in effect for eight years, enhances the skills of business professors. “It’s all top of the line,” says Dr. James Hefner, president of Tennessee State University. “The idea is to take [the latest training and research] back to the students.” With the Urban League, ETS has used a different tactic. Paul Pintella Jr., president and CEO of the Metro Trenton Urban League, says that although “standardized tests [may be] culturally biased, [African-Americans] have to master those tests.” For the past 10 years, funding from ETS has allowed Pintella’s organization to prepare students for the PSAT and the SAT. “ETS has contributed a lot in terms of community service…. Students who prepare properly do well in the [SAT] tests,” he says.


According to Horne, ETS works with national educational organizations to Teach the students that high school counselors can’t reach because of the size of the schools noting that some counselors do not make the time to see students whom they believe are not “college material.”


“That’s where community counselors can step in and that’s the purpose of giving them training and funding those programs,” explains Horne. “That’s part of the way we address the [problem]. But in addressing these problems, everyone has to contribute — including parents, teachers and the test makers. We all have to contribute to the solutions…. We think it’s part of our moral and ethical obligation. We think it’s good business.”


Acknowledging Other Kinds of Knowledge While noting that ETS has changed, Duran concedes that it has been slow to recognize and test for other kinds of knowledge. Similarly, colleges and universities have also been slow to recognize other kinds of attributes — such as leadership and resourcefulness — for admissions purposes.


“I would like in the future for ETS to test for broader skills, including cognitive skills,” says Horne, noting that standardized tests — such as the Scholastic Achievement Test, Graduate Record Examination, and even the LSAT — only predict success in the first year. Anyone who tries to read more into the tests are misusing the results. “We never recommend that test scores [for admissions purposes] be used alone,” she adds. Schools should “consider the entire individual. Our guidelines have always said that.”


Colleges and universities which rely heavily on standardized test scores do so because they have a burdensome task of annually sifting through thousands of admissions applications. By overrelying on test scores, “they look at easy solutions,” points out Horne, whose organization does not certify or cooperate with colleges, universities or other educational entities which rely solely on test scores to admit students. Whenever critics charge that colleges and universities reject students on the basis of test scores, they never identify the institution, says Horne. “Whenever someone identifies an institution, we investigate and send a warning letter.”


As an example, Horne points to when Arkansas wanted to recertify teachers solely on the basis of test scores. “We told them they would have to recertify without our scores.” She adds that there have been numerous instances where districts have been dropped because they rank students solely on the basis of test scores.


There’s a College for Everyone


Commenting on Hopwood v. Texas — a lawsuit that revolved around the University of Texas’s law school de-emphasizing standardized testing in its admission procedures — Horne noted that the white plaintiffs did not complain about the rejected white applicants who scored higher and would have been accepted in front of the plaintiffs if there had been no affirmative action program.


Horne believes that there’s a college out there for everyone. “While it may not be Harvard for everyone, for some, it may mean two-year institutions.”

While two-year institutions have been the traditional way to increase the number of people of color and disadvantaged students entering four-year colleges and universities, Horne acknowledges that many community colleges do not do a good job of transferring students. “The system is seriously flawed.” Horne suggest that to fix the problem, the total system has to be fixed — including broadening the base of students, particularly people of color who are eligible to attend four year colleges and universities.


“These are complex issues,” she notes. “It’s up to the high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, and the test maker to find a solution.”


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