Why Aren’t More Colleges Test Optional?

Since the inception of the SAT in 1926, the admission world has debated (19762001200820152018, 2019) the impact of and validity of the SAT (and later the ACT, CLT, CCTST, etc) on the pool of applicants and enrolled students at a Captureuniversity. Recently, more and more colleges have been asking themselves should they diminish the role of testing in their admission process and declare a test optional admissions policy. This debate has heated up recently with the release of Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions and the announcement of the University of Chicago’s test optional policy causing many institutions to look inward at their use of test scores. However, the question of whether colleges and universities should stop using the SAT and ACT might just be the wrong question. It’s certainly the wrong question at a particular set of schools. While there are some schools where the additional predictive information (generally .02 to .1) from tests lends support to difficult admissions decisions, I think there are as many institutions that should be test optional but are holding on to the tests. In requiring these tests are these schools doing more harm than good to themselves? By holding on to these tests are these schools abdicating their duties to fairly evaluate all candidates and relinquishing that authority to the SAT and ACT?

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College, Career, and Cremation Benchmarks

As the new school year begins, I am anxiously awaiting (read: dreading) the forthcoming SAT and ACT annual reports and with them the inevitable exaggerations, hand-wringings, misinterpretations, and statistical paralogisms that will follow. The College Board’s Total Group Reports and ACT’s Condition of College and Career Readiness Reports (or Profile Reports) will not only spark the annual “sky-is-falling because district scores have dropped .005 points” responses but will also likely lead to an uptick in the “SAT/ACT scores show students not ready to succeed in college, career, life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.”

 

I’ve already bellowed into the void about the sky-is-fallingness of it all, so this time my windmill is the College and Career “Readiness” Benchmarks. More specifically, the lazy language surrounding and incomplete interpretation of those benchmarks that may be doing harm to the most vulnerable students in our schools. If you think I might be being a bit hyperbolic consider this particularly egregious example of “journalism” (which I will not link to):

 

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Choosing a Test Prep Program

01rfd-image-custom1Often I’m asked for help selecting a test prep program, course, or tutor (usually in an email that provides almost no details of the situation of the asker…but that’s another story) and of course, if you ask me a question this leads to a 500+ word screed as a response. Since ranting in private spaces only helps a few, I’ve decided to share my thoughts with a wider audience (all 6 of you who read my blog posts).

 

The criteria and considerations below are some of the things you should look for when you are deciding how to prepare for an admission test. You may find other things have to be included in your decision-making but I highly recommend that you at a minimum consider these factors. I’ll outline my rationale for each factor as I go. 

 

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Who Wins With SAT and ACT School Day?

This is a draft.. I never finished it.. but i’m tired of working on it so it goes up as is.


This past fall NYC DOE officially announced their participation in College Board’s SAT School Day program. This program had been quietly piloted in 40 schools in March of 2015, is being expanded to 90ish schools in spring of 2016, until it finally encompasses all of the approximately 496 NYC public high schools in 2017. Naturally, being the eduprenerd (educator + entrepreneur + nerd) and test prep wonk that I am, this rekindled my interest in the SAT School Day Program and sparked the following analysis of its implications, benefits, and drawbacks.

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Hate-Reads: College Admission, Testing, and the Media

hatereadThe media is chock full of trash when it comes to reporting on college admissions and especially college admission testing. There are few writers who provide the nuance and thoughtfulness that this process deserves. If I were a parent negotiating this process I’d be hard-pressed to sort the wheat from the chaff. So to help out, I’m here to give you a handy guide what to look for and who to read for your college admission information.
First, let’s talk about what I look for in “good reporting.”

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The Use and Abuse of the SAT

This post is a collaboration between myself and James Murphy. James Murphy, right, is the director of tutoring for the Princeton Review in New England and a freelance writer with almost two decades of experience getting students ready for the SAT.

Are New York City’s teachers as smart as their students? John Sexton, the ex-president of New York University, thinks not.  During a talk he gave on the future of American universities at the Library of Congress last week, he claimed that in the past five years, New York City public schools have been hiring “teachers that have lower SAT scores than the students you are graduating. That’s a ticket for failure, because you’re hiring from the bottom half of the existing class.”

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ACT-Kaplan Join Forces to Increase …

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On Tuesday April 19th, I woke to find the following press release in my inbox.

Las Vegas, NV (April 18th, 2016) – ACT, (the other test maker) has decided to partner with Kaplan Test Prep to offer free standardized test prep, in a new effort to emphasize the ineffectuality of standardized tests. This new state of the art online testing program will be at least partially live (Take that KHAN ACADEMY with your pre-recorded doodles). Though it’s not entirely free to all students, Kaplan promises to provide lots of free test prep to low-income students to help dial down the reality that it is a for-profit company making bank on this new partnership. With this new program, Kaplan promises to utilize the same top-notch online portal used for classes at Kaplan University. (Ranked 137th Best Online College and ranked equally with the notable Oral Roberts University.)

 

This new program entitled: Kaplan Online Program Outreach for Underserved Tutorials (or simply KOPOUT) features lessons from seasoned Master Ninjas who no longer need silly things like textbooks to cover the material that isn’t showing up in high school this year.

 

“We know that helping kids help understand the help they need should not go unhelped,” says ACT COO, Kyle Ren. “After all, we think it’s beneficial to work with test prep companies, as they’ve made it their business to recognize the flaws we’ve created. It’s like, you know when like the Terminator came back and he was like, I’m not here to kill you like I’m here to help save your kid from the shiny new guy who wants to kill you. And he can like mold himself into anything at all, and that’s like, useful and stuff. So we’ve got the Terminator on our side. Or are we the Terminator? I don’t know. I guess one of us is the Terminator.”

 

KOPOUT also includes the following features:

  • An online platform with prerecorded lessons over the backdrop of a 1980’s yearbook setting.
  • Sciencey science for the Science section discussing the charts and graphs and other things ACT takes for college level Science.
  • Real ACT questions which are totally different from the ones you’d find in the book they’re about to publish for more money.
  • A social network of like-minded kids using the service as an excuse for learning instead of snap chatting nasty comments to their ex-girlfriend.
  • Quinoa.

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SAT Disambiguation – Real World Math Problems

Real world CB definitionSince the announced changes to the SAT in March 2014, College Board officials have been on the world tour of high schools and education conferences trying to wow educators with their shiny new toy, the 15th iteration of the SAT. They’ve published exhaustive treatises on the research and specifications behind the changes, hosted dozens of gatherings and yet have provided no real information for the students who will actually take the test. These kids have been left to decode marketing-speak extolling the virtues of a test “more aligned with school work” and “based on a foundation of research.” Newspapers have picked up on the College Board’s talking points and parroted them without providing clarification, further confusing families and adding to the anxiety surrounding an already fraught time. So this leaves little ole me with the herculean task of laying plain that which has been obfuscated. I’ve been trying to work through each of the “8 Key Changes” and translate them into laymen’s terms so that they are more easily digested. Previously, I analyzed “Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation“. As with that analysis, here I’ll also seek to answer these three key questions:

  1. What does this really mean?
  2. What level of impact will this change have for test takers?
  3. Is this really a change or is it simply a redistribution of the same ole same?

So, let’s do this thing!

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SAT Disambiguation – Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation

8 key changes pigIn my continuing effort to understand the rhetoric behind and disambiguate the marketing jargon used to describe the redesigned SAT (henceforth referred to as SAT version 15 or SAT v15.0), today I’ll explore what the College Board means by Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation. This high-highfalutin and important sounding language has been bandied about a great deal in order to support the notion that this latest redesign of the SAT has made a radical departure from the ghosts of SATs past. It’s also been held up as the shining example of SAT v15.0 testing “what really matters” to college and career readiness and only things that are “worthy of close attention”. But each time I hear the term it makes me ask “what does Founding Documents really mean?”, “how does this really impact students?”, and “is it a real change to the test?”.

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Stanford shows they’re not so smart after all

malala-500x375cMaking the rounds in the college world this week is the story of Stanford University’s “demand”* that college applicant Malala Yousafzai take the SAT. Correction, that’s Noble Laureate, educational activist, assassination attempt survivor, and still “kicking ass and taking names” while advocating for education for women, 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai. Stanford University, in their apparent quest for additional bad press, has let the story of Ms Yousafzai’s desire to apply to the college become one of a “demand” for a test that many see as worthless and not indicative of any of the true characteristics of college bound students. It’s stunning to me that this university, with what I assume is a million dollar team of PR professionals, would let this potentially huge PR win become another example of the evil that colleges do in their quest for rankings and their love of test scores.

Had Stanford’s team been on the ball this could have been an amazing PR win for them. But alas I think the people working there are not as bright as many of the undergraduates they seek to enroll.  However, because I’m a benevolent critic, I’m going to give Stanford a few suggestions free of charge as to how they should have handled this situation. These 3 suggestions would let Stanford achieve their goals of having high SAT rankings and good PR while at the same time doing the right thing for Ms Yousafzai.

 

Suggestion 1: Amend Admission Policy

To solve any potential conflicts Stanford could have amended their admission policy and/or practice to allow for admitting Ms Yousafzai without scores. It would have been a win to say she was so amazing she inspired change in the institutions policies. Here is one suggested policy amendment, which allows for them to continue to be elitist a meritocracy and yet have Ms Yousafzai qualify:

 

Multi-facited Assessment of Latent Academic Laurels for Admission (any acronym created by this title is completely coincidental and unrelated to the intent of the program)

Effective immediately, Stanford University, in order to increase access to the university and attract diverse students with not only amazing academic records but also stellar political and societal contributions will evaluated under the Multi-facited Assessment of Latent Academic Laurels for Admission program. This process will allow for the admissions committee to fairly compare the political and societal contributions of unique candidates to the academic records of traditional applicants. This process will maintain the high standards of the university while allowing an open holistic review of factors that fall outside of the traditional consideration factors. Those applicants who qualify for the Multi-facited evaluation program will display one or more of the following characteristics:

1.       Surviving an assassination attempt while advocating for educational equality

2.       Wining a globally recognized award for societal contributions

3.       Being so bad-ass that a fundamentalist pseudo-religious junta wants to assassinate you

4.       Founding of education institutions to serve severely under-served groups

5.       Starting a non-profit organization

6.       Becoming the global face of any social impact movement

7.       Meeting with one or more world leader

8.       Holding single name status (e.g. Oprah, Pele, Madonna, Shakespeare, Jesus, Michael, Michael)

9.       Achieving top scores on the equivalent of the SAT in any other country (e.g. Gaokao exam in China, or GCSEs in the U.K.)

10.   Given interviews with Diana Sawyer or Jon Stewart

11.   Publish an autobiography

12.   David Beckham or Bono gives you an award

13.   Are featured on the cover of a global news magazine (e.g. Time) as one of 100 most influential people

14.   Getting a multi-national corporation to provide for your family during your convalescence

15.   Accomplishing any of 2 or more of the above before legally allowed to consume alcohol on campus

 

Suggestion 2: Drop the Mic

If a change in policy was too much Stanford could have simply done a mic drop. Make a statement that leaves no questions about her ability and the reason she should be admitted bypassing the normal admissions process. This would also have given them the additional benefit of laying claim to her (even though she hasn’t actually applied yet). Since clearly Stanford’s PR department needs help, here is a press release I’ve prepared for them:

 

For Immediate Release

“We, the admission committee of Stanford University, have decided to extend an offer admission to Ms Malala Yousafzai. The entire university looks forward to her presence on campus and as part of our community.

 

In order to facilitate the process for Ms Yousafzai, we will allow her speech in front of the UN (which we’ve learned she wrote herself) to supplant her application essays. Because we understand she likely has speaking engagements in front of other universities, to which she is not applying, on the dates of the SAT and ACT, we’ll accept her previous amazing standardized test scores in lieu of additional standardized tests scores. At this point additional test scores would be redundant and add little additional evaluative value and would actually unnecessarily burden not only Ms Yousafzai but also the women she has opened a school to serve and the girls around the world she is mentoring and leading. Finally, we’d like to acknowledge the honor we feel at being Ms Yousafzai’s choice for higher education. We have had several Nobel Laureate alumnus but this will be a first for us to admit a winner of the award. We look forward to learning as much from her as she will learn from us.

 

Mic. Dropped. Go ahead and question the validity of her admissions after that statement. I dare you.

 

Suggestion 3: R. Kelly Strategy – Keep it in the closet

If Stanford had wanted to cover their proverbial asses, they could have easily contacted Ms Yousafzai privately and kept the entire thing out of the media until she was enrolled. Given that SAT scores are not public record, if Ms Yousafzai didn’t take the test no one need ever know. If her scores were bad that could easily stay between her and Stanford (and the College Board). Had I been in charge of the university admission’s committee as soon as word came in that she was interested it would have been logical for the team to contact her quietly and evaluate her candidacy. I’d have flow my international admissions dean to her house to review her records at her home. If she needed SAT scores they could have administered a practice test on the spot for a quick private result before even thinking about asking her to take the real thing. Or even better just forget the whole thing and go ahead and admit her. Much like recruited athletes are admitted with lower scores and bypassing much of the typical process they could have rolled out the silent behind the scenes process and had her on campus before anyone was the wiser. Who among us would even blink when fall of 2016 rolls around and we see a picture of Ms Yousafzai walking the Stanford campus? Who would say, “I wonder what her SAT scores are?”

 

But let this be a lesson to universities on how to handle PR on prominent (non-athlete) applicants. The key is getting out your own narrative ahead of the internet and social media. Otherwise, things like this happen:

  • Malala Wants To Go To Stanford, But First She’ll Need To Take The SATs via Forbes
  • Should a Nobel laureate be required to take the SATs? via YahooNews
  •  Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize not a ticket to Stanford University via India Today
  • Dear Malala Yousafzai, your Nobel Prize is not your ticket to Stanford via Tribune blogs
  • Malala Yousafzai still has to take the SAT, just like every other Stanford applicant via Hello Giggles

 

*Oddly not a single story cited an official Stanford statement and my googling skills were not up to the task. If you find the an official Stanford statement please drop it in the comments.
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