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article imageOp-Ed: Rise of test-optional college admissions will backfire

By Calvin Wolf     Jul 25, 2014 in Politics
With elite women's university Bryn Mawr College joining the ranks of "test-optional" colleges and universities, critics are split on the merits of allowing students to gain admission to universities without submitting either SAT or ACT scores.
I don't know how much the college admissions game has changed since the fall of 2002, when I was a high school senior applying to public universities, but the hubbub over "test-optional" colleges and universities indicates a troubling new trend. In my day, a high school senior had three weapons in his or her college application arsenal: GPA/transcript, SAT/ACT score(s), and extracurricular activities. In theory, if you were weak in one area you could make up for it in the other two. Or, if you were a standout in one area, you still had a good shot of getting in.
Weak SAT score? You were all right if you had a good GPA and some extracurriculars. Low grades? A good SAT score and some prominent student activities would set you right. Of course, unlike many of the opiners on higher education and higher education policy, I was a state U boy — not an Ivy League matriculator. To be honest, I roll my eyes at much of the ranting about college admissions, since everyone and their dog is obsessed over how "selective" of a school their child can eke into.
I saw much of the obsession over getting into "selective" schools leading into a crude gaming of the system by high school students with plenty of time and money. Which is why, with elite women's university Bryn Mawr College becoming a "test-optional" university, I take great interest in CBS News' coverage of the recent spike in hubbub over the "test-optional" craze. It turns out that new research is pointing to mixed results when it comes to the test-optional goal of increasing diversity on campus.
A study by College Transitions, a college consulting firm, found that the primary beneficiary of test-optional admissions policies was the institution itself.
On paper, colleges and universities are using test-optional admissions policies to enroll more poor and minority students, who statistically fare less well on the SAT and ACT than white and wealthy students. It is no surprise that rich kids, whose parents can afford SAT and ACT prep courses and study materials, as well as provide their kids with plenty of leisure time in which to study, typically score more highly on those tests than their peers. And if the rich kids don't score well the first time, the parents have enough money to afford unlimited re-takes, since colleges and universities often accept the highest submitted score. Eliminating the need for SAT/ACT scores was seen as a way to reduce this rich kid testing advantage in college admissions.
However, proponents of this concept are failing to see that these standardized tests are most objective, and therefore most fair, of the three college admissions pillars. Though poor and minority students may statistically score lower, they are at least competing in a relatively un-rigged game. A poor or minority student is more likely to be able to compete toe-to-toe with a rich kid in standardized testing than in any other arena. Though removing the SAT and ACT from college admissions may sound like a boon in the short term, just wait a few years...
What will happen is massive gaming of high school grades. As a high school teacher, I can already attest as to how rampant grade inflation is. If more colleges and universities become test-optional, it will get much worse. By removing the SAT/ACT pillar of college admissions, only the GPA and Extracurricular pillars remain. More pressure, therefore, will fall on each of those two pillars. With more pressure falling on the GPA pillar, more pressure will be applied to teachers to inflate grades.
Which parents apply the most pressure regarding student grades? Rich ones. The wealthier parents have the time and money to spend all day "networking" for their kids' GPA advantage. Kid gets a bad grade? The parent who doesn't work outside the home can rush to school to confront the teacher...or the department chair...or the principal. Teachers learn quickly which students to treat with kid gloves, and it's almost always the rich ones. Poor students' grades are less inflated because their parents are less likely to make a fuss. For example, a single mother working double shifts is less likely than a well-heeled soccer mom to be able to argue grades during a teacher's middle-of-the-day conference period.
The GPAs of rich kids applying to test-optional colleges and universities will inflate, but the GPAs of poor and minority kids applying to the same schools will not. Ironically, it was this latter group which the test-optional admission policy was supposed to help.
Similarly, poor and minority kids are disadvantaged compared to rich kids when it comes to creating good extracurricular resumes. Rich kids have the time and money with which to pursue activities that sound great on paper: Volunteer work, sports, travel, student leadership groups, etc. Poor kids may not be able to afford the fees to join student activities, sports teams, or take that trip that will lead to a good college admissions essay.
Rich kids can also craft a "well-rounded" extracurricular resume by using parents' networks to get cushy part-time jobs, creating the image that they are hardworking, down-to-earth teens. They can work at a choice job for a few hours after school, earn some spending money, and on paper look equal to the poor student who has to work at a fast food joint. And, of course, they can always "work" at their parents' business — I have heard of a few high school seniors who allegedly make outrageous pay working in the office of Dad's oil company.
Poor kids have to do non-glamorous grunt work that may not stack up well on paper against the rich kids' inflated job title. Also, some poor kids may have to work in the home providing child care after school, performing an invaluable service but not getting that good resume bump. If your parents are working and child care is too expensive, you may end up having to watch your young siblings. When it comes to filling out that college application, you may be at a disadvantage compared to the rich kid who was able to "work" a cushy desk job at her parents' friend's business.
Despite the advantages rich kids have when it comes to SAT and ACT scores, they have greater advantages when it comes to GPA and extracurricular activities. Sorry, Bryn Mawr, but test-optional college admissions actually help the rich kids more in the long run. If we want to keep it fair, we should focus on enhancing the fairness and validity of college aptitude tests.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Standardized tests, Sat, Act, college admissions, Bryn Mawr College
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