Each fall, University President Mary Sue Coleman sings the praises of the newest crop of students at New Student Convocation, telling freshmen that they are the University’s smartest, most diverse and most talented incoming class “ever.” But maybe Coleman should leave average SAT and ACT scores out of next year’s speech. A new study shows that standardized testing is an inherently flawed system and urges colleges and universities to make the tests optional or drop them altogether. As an influential institution, the University of Michigan should help set the example by better adjusting its admissions system to acknowledge the problems with standardized testing.
According to the year-long study, led by the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT serve more negative than positive purposes. While they strive to be a fair, uniform gauge of ability, they tend to disadvantage students who can’t afford expensive test preparation courses and encourage students to train for the test rather than learn. Having examined the report, a commission of influential college admissions officials recently recommended that schools place less emphasis on standardized testing in admissions.
This report comes at a time when the test prep industry is raking in billions of dollars, profiting from the anxieties of parents and students. And according to this study, these courses work, offering well-prepared students a modest point bump and penalizing those who can’t afford the training. This disproportionately disadvantages poor students who can’t afford independent test prep courses and tend to come from struggling schools that don’t prepare their students well for the college admissions process.
Further, standardized testing encourages students to focus on “gaming” the system, not learning. Caring only about results, students often prepare better for taking the test than the test’s content, studying the most effective pacing methods rather than the material covered. This defeats the purpose of tests like the SAT and ACT, which are supposed to gauge how much students have learned and how prepared they are for college.
Many schools like Smith College and Wake Forest University have already made the SAT and ACT an optional part of the application process, pre-empting the commission’s recommendation. Unfortunately, standardized testing is, in many ways, a necessary evil. The need for a standardized admissions component makes eliminating these tests from the equation problematic. Because grades are so easily inflated and high schools differ so greatly in quality, universities still need a way — albeit a flawed one — to gauge the academic capabilities of prospective students.
The solution is to change the way universities weigh standardized test scores in the admissions process. Knowing that this system has its flaws, admissions officials need to reflect that by giving less credit to SAT and ACT scores, ensuring that they are assigned an appropriate level of importance — a relatively low one, that is.
While shifting the focus away from test scores in the University of Michigan’s admissions process could potentially harm its rankings in the U.S. News and World Report, for instance, it’s more important that the University reflect its commitment to a fair system. And with a new study to substantiate suspicions about the standardized testing system’s flaws, the University needs to keep up with progress.