It’s Time to Fix Standardized Testing

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc and the educational status quo and disrupted not only how students are taught and tested. Schools are radically adjusting how they deliver lessons and testing agencies are revamping how they deliver their assessment. The inability to gather in a room has forced the cancellation of statewide assessments, the shortening of AP exams, and major admissions tests (like the ACTGMATGRE, ISEELSATSAT, and SSAT) to develop online at-home testing options. This is the moment to fix many of the things that are broken about assessments. 

Since their beginnings in the late 1800s, standardized tests have become an oppressive force in U.S. education and have influenced many other areas of society, yet in that same time there have been only marginal changes in the tests themselves. Despite reams of papers and scores of conference presentations, a high score on a 4 or 5 answer-choice aggressively-timed test continues to be treated as the epitome of intellectual demonstration. This has gone so far that, in the midst of a global pandemic, one (intentionally unnamed or linked to) author questioned whether epidemiologists should be heeded above economists, asking, “How smart are they? What are their average GRE scores?”

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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.”

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Are Changes Coming to College Admissions?

We know it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s been less than 6 months since the Justice Department announced the indictments resulting from Operation Varsity Blues, so it’s no surprise that few universities have announced any substantial policy changes in their admissions procedures. If most big institutions move slowly, universities look at them and wonder, “What’s the big rush there?”  There are still committees to be convened in order to create sub-committees that can issue memos that can be circulated in order to be approved as official reports by committees who can then move items forward for approval by the faculty and/or Board of Trustees. In other words, don’t expect big changes in how colleges admit students anytime soon.

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GRE: The One Test

Since the 1980s, Educational Testing Service (ETS), which dominated educational admission testing from 1940 – 1980, has been hemorrhaging product lines. In its heyday (SAT word) ETS was the Sauron to US education’s Middle Earth, providing admissions tests for the vast majority of professional certification programs and higher ed admissions.  Their services ranged from teacher certification exams to the SAT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT. In the last decade or so, ETS business strategy has changed and the organization has begun to aggressively market their most popular remaining assessment product, the Graduate Record Exam (commonly known by its initialism – GRE), as “the One Test to Assess Them All.” This strategic market grab, while an interesting business strategy, raises significant questions about all admission tests. Specifically, the expansion of the GRE into fields beyond its design should force responsible test users to reevaluate long-held assumptions about what information is being gained by requiring the GRE (and all its brethren) and at what cost.

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IACAC 2019 Keynote Address

Recently, I had the honor of delivering the Keynote address at the 2019 IACAC Conference. I thought it would be cool to share some of the highlights of that talk and some of the reference resources here.

The core message of my talk was that the American educational system is not a meritocracy as most people think of the word, but instead is a meritocracy in the original sense of the word as it was satirically coined by Micheal Young in 1958.

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Stanford shows they’re not so smart after all

Making 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.