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Refusing To Define Quality by Anything but Test Scores: Why?


Last night I was at a dinner party. The small gathering included eight Ivy League tenured faculty members. Although we were gathered to talk about another matter, the subject of test scores and college admissions surfaced. I won’t go into the details of the discussion, but, as you might expect, I had to say something.

I expressed my dissatisfaction with admissions decisions that are made solely or for the most part on test scores. The response was, “Test scores are the only objective way to measure ability and performance.” But are they? I don’t think there is anything objective about test scores. They are a product of our environments, our access to education, our wealth, and many other factors. How much control do children and young people have over their home environment, school environment, communities? Not much. 

The inevitable next question was “How would you make admissions decisions?” Well, I would make decisions based on a variety of factors (GPA, student involvement, a writing sample, community service, creativity, class rank) as people have multiple intelligences, and individual talent manifests in many different ways.

I am reminded of this when my 10-year-old daughter brings home her school work. Her public school in Philadelphia assigns her (regularly) a five-paragraph essay to write. Although there is some value in learning to write this way, it clearly stifles her creativity. I watch her rush to complete the exercise, and each time she expresses her boredom.

On the other hand, when she attends her weekly creative writing course at a nearby arts center, she fills pages and pages of her colorful notebook. She writes wild, imaginative stories and illustrates them beautifully – emulating the work of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl. Sometimes, I have to pull her away from her notebook to make sure she gets some sleep. Some children excel at the five-paragraph essay, and some excel at creative writing. We need both types, and we must value both of these talents and perspectives. We most certainly should value both of these ideas in colleges and universities. We are the marketplace of ideas, right?

The other issue that surfaces during conversations about test scores is usually diversity in the student body. As Whites typically have more access to wealth and college preparatory courses and receive a stronger K-12 education, they do better than Blacks and Latinos on standardized tests. If you don’t believe me, read The Color of Wealth. When we only admit students based on test scores, we end up with a nearly monolithic student body, with a few racial and ethnic minorities sprinkled in the mix.

Defining quality as high performance on a test reduces people to a number. Such a measure overlooks many talented low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, and non-traditional souls. I know this to be true because I have had to endure countless conversations about diversity that end in “well, we want diversity, but we don’t want to reduce quality.” I always ask what those two things have to do with one another. Why must diversity and quality be opposed? It all depends on how you measure quality, right? And if we present a testing system as objective that is actually skewed by American racism and classism, we perpetuate the status quo with its race and class divisions. Unfortunately, that’s what some folks want.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

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