Idea of the day: ditch standardized tests

examsWhy do colleges and universities require millions of students each year to take standardized tests as part of their college applications?  The conventional rationale goes something like this: there is a vast quality difference in the nation’s high schools, so GPA alone may not accurately reflect the true ability of the students.  After all, an A in English at Phillips Exeter is not the same as an A at East Memphis Public High, but a 2400 on the SATs is the same everywhere.  Standardized tests therefore put students on the same evaluative plane.  The test scores are more useful for gauging the student’s academic aptitude than GPAs.

Sounds good, except that it’s not really true.  Critics have long charged that flaws and biases in these tests make them bad predictors of college success.  The latest and important evidence comes from the new book Crossing the Finishing Line. In a brief review of the book, Chad Alderman notes that the data in the book shows that standardized test scores have little predictive power of student graduation rates in college.  High school GPAs are “three to five times more important” in predicting whether a student will graduate from college than SAT or ACT scores.  Moreover, when high school quality is accounted for, the predictive power of SAT and ACT entirely disappears and even becomes negative.

What should we make of this data?  If the data shows what it purports to show, then a major — perhaps the only — rationale for requiring and using standardized test scores in college admissions has just been dealt a fatal blow.

And on the other side, there is a host of possible negative effects of using standardized tests.  The critics of standardized tests have accused it of being biased against low-income students in favor of more affluent students, of spawning a 310-million-dollar-per-year test-prep industry, of encouraging rote preparations in schools, of harboring racial and gender biases.  The sad truth is that even the supporters of standardized tests may only favor the tests in spite of all their flaws because “this is the only thing we have.

Is it really the only thing we have?  If we want to predict student performance and admit only those who are likely to succeed in college, colleges could simply look at objective measures of high school quality and use that in conjunction with student grades to determine how much that GPA should be weighted compared to other factors and candidates.

And if we wish to reward the students who succeeded in spite of adversity, we should use the same objective measure of high school quality and give students who did well in the worst schools extra points in their applications.

This brings me to another concern I have with standardized test scores.  The scores, as meaningless and unpredictive as they might be, give ammunition to those who accuse affirmative action programs of being unfair to meritorious applicants who lose out to “less qualified” minorities.  The scores are often presented as a neutral and quantifiable indicator of how much less qualified the minority candidates are.

The plaintiff in Gratz v. Bollinger, for example, attacked the University of Michigan for giving race 20 points on a 100-point scale while giving only 12 points for having a perfect SAT score.  And as I have written here previously, a Princeton researcher found that being African-American is equivalent to having 230 extra points in a 1600-point SAT exam, and being Hispanic is equivalent to 185 points.

How closely a school tracks admission to standardized testing scores has become a proxy for whether the school is “meritocratic.”  Disparities in testing scores among different ethnic groups is a favorite examples that opponents of affirmative action use to criticize it.  But their criticism has a lot less force if the testing scores themselves are poor proxies for student ability.

A perfect score on the SAT is indeed the same everywhere.  But it turns out that the perfect score doesn’t tell us very much at all about what we want to know.

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