The Biggest Barrier to Test Optional Admissions: Mass Stupidity

We in higher education enjoy an enviable competitive environment, probably unlike any you’ll find in other industries.  It’s not like when Komatsu summed up its entire strategic plan with two words: Encircle Caterpillar .

We in higher education actually like when our rivals and competitors do well, and do good things.  This is, of course, provided we can pay our mortgages and keep food on the table at home. We have bills like everyone else, and there is a limit to our largess.

Thus, last week, when The University of Chicago made a stunning announcement that they would go test-optional in admissions, we felt a lot of things: Surprise, of course, but also confirmation, and yes, even vindication of our own decision to eliminate testing requirements in admissions in 2011. (The students admitted without tests are doing quite well, by the way, just as the research suggested they would). Our own office of Public Relations and Communications, in an internal newsletter, sent this out, getting in on the fun while congratulating our neighbors in Hyde Park:

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Of course, many colleges can go test-optional.  Of equal importance was Chicago’s announcement to increase financial aid substantially. The combination of changes to admissions and increases in financial aid could end up being expensive.  But then, again, they’re one of the few places in the country that could afford to do so.

All we can say is, “Well done.”

I presume, but do not know for sure, that Chicago did the same type of analysis that every test-optional college has done, demonstrating that–once you look at everything else in the application file–standardized tests add almost nothing to your ability to make good admissions decisions.  (BTW, almost every college that has gone test-optional has to get the policy through some sort of faculty committee, filled with Ph.D.s who know research and statistics.  They can be a tough crowd when they want to be.  Even when they don’t want to be.)

And I suspect they also know that there are a lot of very bright, inquisitive, angular, creative, and witty people in the world who don’t test well: False negatives, we’d call them, if we could ever figure out exactly what we were looking for in the first place.  Of course, they certainly must know that the college academic performance of low-income students, women, people of color, and first-generation students–the very ones America should be educating in greater numbers–is under-predicted by tests.  It’s almost like white guys set up systems to perpetuate the advantage they have in the world.  Go figure.

To be frank, Chicago probably doesn’t care what I think, but probably also has a lot more to lose than DePaul did. It’s still worth repeating: Their bravery is admirable.

There are rumors–not verified, but sufficiently substantiated–that two or three other big names are ready to move forward with similar announcements. You would understand if they have second thoughts, however, when you see stuff like this, from when we made our announcement (this was originally in the Chicago Sun-Times, but I cannot find it there now):

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So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised this morning when this popped up my feed:  This headline and the article that goes with it are presumably written by educated members of the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune.

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It’s among the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read on the subject, and believe me, that’s saying something.  Let me address parts of it piece-by-piece.  First, the headline.  It’s wrong.  ACT and SAT are, in fact, just for colleges.  So you already lost me.

Next up:


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That’s actually a good question, Tribune editorial writers.  Why take them?  If you can find a college on this list that looks good to you, you don’t need to.  At all.

What’s more troubling is the lack of understanding about how norm-referenced tests work: They are designed to be normally distributed.  And across the population, they are: No more than 10% can get a score in the top 10%.  The middle will always be in the middle, with only minute differences from year to year.  This is very different than a biology class, for instance, where, if everyone studies really hard, it’s possible everyone in the class could get an A grade.

But those norm-referenced tests don’t treat every person equally, of course.  If you have large numbers of students of color from low-income families like the public schools in Chicago do, test scores are going to be lower.  This is due to many reasons I and others have written about before, but it usually boils down to one word: Money.

They continue, with this paragraph that might have broken the stupid-meter:

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First, two private companies made up the “college readiness” stuff.  No one appointed them.  No one voted for them.  It’s as if we entrusted Disney Land to benchmark happiness (the research suggests we are short on happiness, and the answer to our happiness deficit is more Disney Land). The more problems College Board and ACT can identify with their self-created “benchmarks” the more tests they sell.  Did a light bulb just go off in your head, Tribune Editorial Board? I hope so.

Again, Illinois students are about average because every state will be about average, adjusted for the population of testers.  Wealthier states with higher percentages of White and Asian students will score higher.  Poorer states with higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students will score lower.

Then, the sentence about the switch from ACT to SAT seems like it was thrown in by the intern as she brought Starbucks into the editorial room while they were trying to come up with some more reasons to explain test performance.  It makes no sense.  Unfortunately for my comic routine, they didn’t try to explain how the switch might account for anything.  And finally, these tests are not a cumulative assessment of all students have learned in 12 years of school.  No. Nope. Nuh-uh.

Depending on whom you talk to, tests measure income, ethnicity, speed processing ability, preparation, time spent prepping for the specific test, intellect, MBTI type, social capital, and learning, in some combination.

Here we go: Perhaps the most wrong sentence of the article.

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Is there a word other than “wrong” for something that is the complete opposite of right? Because that’s the word I need right now.  Tests are designed to measure a single student.  Not schools, not teachers, not school districts.  They were never intended to show legislatures how to allocate money.  They were never intended to indicate which colleges had the smartest students. They may show a picture of health, but you could figure that out by looking at where the most poor kids go to school.  Hint: Those are the schools that need the most money, State Legislators.

And, the wrap up:

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Pretty much everyone who has ever worked in admissions is saying, “WTF?” right now.

If you’re planning to take your institution test-optional, get ready for the onslaught of stupid.  It’s inevitable.  But don’t let it keep you from doing what you know is the right thing.  There is lots to like about test-optional, only if it causes you to stop thinking of students as two-dimensional.

Oh, and if you’re starting to write an editorial criticizing a college for going test-optional? 312-362-7143 rings on my desk.  My email is If you don’t want to talk to me, I can recommend dozens of others to help you get your facts straight.



Are ACT and College Board attempting to weaken “Truth in Testing” laws?

Yesterday, Bob Schaeffer of FairTest offered a stunning observation on the NACAC elist about lobbying efforts of ACT and The College Board to weaken “Truth in Testing” laws in New York and California.  For those of you who missed it, it is here:

Withholding the July ACT test in California is part of a new test-maker strategy to get that state and New York to roll back their landmark “Truth in Testing” laws, which force periodic disclosure of ACT and SAT questions and answers to enable students, educators, the media and even test-prep companies to better understand and prepare for admissions exams. FairTest and its predecessor organizations fought hard for these consumer protection laws going back to the late 1970s — I have testified multiple times in both Albany and Sacramento — and their provisions have been strongly supported by major civil rights, education reform and student groups. (Disclosure requirements exist only in these two mega-states but have been extended nationally by test-makers for administrative convenience)

Bills are now being circulated by ACT and College Board lobbyists in the New York legislature to weaken its Truth in Testing statute — I have seen draft language — and we expect similar proposals will surface in California this session.

Individuals and organizations in the college admissions arena who support test disclosure rules that have functioned well for more than three decades should let legislative leaders in these two states know their opinions now.  If hearings are scheduled, we will reach out to allies to join us in testifying.

Whether your institution uses standardized testing or not in the admissions process, this is troubling; we all recognize the extent to which college admissions testing is emphasized and used (many, including me, would say, “over-emphasized and over used”) in our daily lives, and many talk frequently about the cost this emphasis and focus extracts on the health of our students, not to mention the tremendous opportunity costs it inflicts on society.

But even if you love these tests, you might want to consider whether or not students should have some ability to understand them before they take such high stakes tests; this is especially true of students who cannot afford to take the exams multiple times.

I would suggest a few things:

  • That College Board and ACT issue public statements to respond to these charges fully.
  • That NACAC take an official stand and request the same, and, if the charges are true, to encourage them to reconsider their stance in the name of student advocacy
  • That every Admissions, EM, Financial Aid, High School Counselor, and IEC write letters to both David Coleman at College Board and Marten Roorda at ACT to express concern about their orientation toward testing transparency.  I’m talking real letters in your own words: Not form letters hastily copied and pasted.
  • If you live in California or New York, take the time to send a copy of the letter to your elected officials.

Thank you, and thanks to Bob for alerting us to this.

Surprise: College Board and ACT don’t like Test-optional admissions


Ok, I suspect you’re not surprised.

Over the past few years, as more colleges do research on the value of standardized tests in college admissions, using their own data and thinking about their own missions against the context of access for students, more of them eliminate the requirement of standardized testing in the admissions process.  Fairtest lists almost 1,000 of them, but many are, to be fair, non-selective institutions that have never required tests.  Others, however, are among the US News and World Report Top 100, and include names like Middlebury, Hamilton, Wake Forest, Agnes Scott, and Lake Forest.  Of course, many large public institutions don’t use tests for a large percentage of their incoming class who automatically qualify for admission based on class rank.

There are many reasons why colleges do go test-optional, and, to be fair, not all are completely benevolent.  I had the provost of one mid-sized, east coast public university call me and ask how much I thought they could raise the SAT mean of the freshman class by going test-optional.  I said I didn’t know, because we reported scores for all students who had tests (even those who were admitted without them), and also told him his motive wasn’t the real reason he should pursue it.  That university still requires tests.

Almost every institution that goes test optional has a faculty full of researchers who need to be convinced before changing a policy on admissions, and most places I know that have done this (going back to the California study in 2002) suggest that tests uniquely explain about 2-4% of the variance in freshman grades, and not much of anything beyond that.  In short, we don’t need tests to make good admissions decisions. Period.  A lot of colleges and universities believe the same thing.  If students have them, and they want to send them, we’ll put them in the file along with anything else they think is important.

(Uniquely is an important word.  Tests, by themselves, explain much more of the variance than that.  But tests and high school GPA–the best predictor–are strongly correlated. Once you eliminate that correlation, you discover the tests are mostly very low value.  This makes sense to most researchers, of course, and the people at the testing agencies are aware of this (Wayne Camara of ACT even agreed with me on the 2% point when we talked face-to-face), so they present the data differently, by talking about things like “chances for a grade of B or better.”  Everything, it seems, is linear and continuous until it isn’t.

“But,” people say, “why would you throw away information, even if it is of little value?  It’s extra information!!  And extra information is better!!”

This is like one of those arguments your meshuganah uncle Sherman brings up at Thanksgiving, after he has a few drinks and starts bitching about foreign aid, or food stamps, or the fakakta tax policy.  If you only listen for a second, it seems to make sense.  But when you think about it, you realize it’s mostly uninformed BS.

The reason you don’t want this extra information is the cost of acquiring it.  Suppose, for instance, we didn’t have standardized tests, but someone created one, and told you this:

  • The test will eventually be used by journalists, school districts, and politicians in ways the test makers never wanted it to be used, like comparing how well school districts use resources, or how good a college is.
  • The kids who are already going to go to college are going to score higher on this test, because it measures not just academic preparation (kind of) but also social capital, like parental attainment, income, and ethnicity.  In short, it measures opportunity and gives opportunity to those with the most opportunity.
  • The test will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and will also take away from instructional time, as teachers (see above) are pressured to teach to the test. English classes will give multiple choice tests in the interest of preparing students for high-stakes testing.
  • After all that, it really won’t help you predict very much of anything academic. Non-standardized grades from thousands of teachers at 40,000 high schools are still way better.)

Would you be enthusiastic about it?  I suspect I know your answer.

For a while, test-optional was seen as a fringe movement.  I don’t think the big testing agencies, The College Board and ACT, thought too much about it.  It was that little pimple that no one saw because it was covered up by your underwear.


Things have changed, however. The first volley was this ACT report suggesting test-optional policies were not only not good: They were bad.  I followed up with this reply. ACT wasn’t finished, of course, and has since published papers suggesting tests were a vital part of admissions, and that my response was unfounded.  (You’ll have to go here and find these articles, as the fakakta ACT website doesn’t allow direct article links). The author of the article called me “One Individual” and suggested I didn’t know how to read a data chart.  People who frequent my other blog might find this claim amusing.  I did. And don’t tell Wayne Camara this, but ACT actually invited me to spend time on their campus in Iowa City to talk to their data people about Tableau, which I did. I can read a chart.

As an aside, part of my criticism of the ACT report was the way they called out students with a 10 Composite Score.  Here was the chart in the original report, which I screenshotted and which appears to have been removed.  More on why this is important in a minute.


NACAC Conference

This has stepped up a bit more with a session at NACAC,  (slides here) promoting a new book sponsored by, well, either the College Board and/or ACT (no one knows, and the people soliciting interviews wouldn’t be upfront about it).  The session description is below in blue and I’ve added italics, which I respond to below:

Despite widespread media coverage, underlying claims about the benefits of “going test-optional” have largely escaped empirical scrutiny, and support for these claims tends to be of limited generalizability and/or fail to adequately control for student selectivity and other factors. Hear a rigorous and balanced approach to the contemporary debate on standardized testing and the test-optional movement. Explore how test-optional practices emerged and expanded, how widespread grade inflation has made it increasingly difficult for institutions to solely rely on students’ prior achievement, and how standardized admission tests can be used in predicting student retention, achievement, and graduation.

The first point, about how these policies have not faced empirical scrutiny is a complete and utter lie. Here, here, and here for just a few.

The second point, about rigorous and balanced:  It’s as rigorous and balanced (and impartial) as this, where seven tobacco company executives testify before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

The third point, about grade inflation: It may be caused by the College Board itself.

The fourth point, how standardized tests can be used to predict retention, performance, and graduation, basically boils down to this: Rich kids have better test scores and graduate at higher rates, so it must be the tests that predict things (more later on this.)

I probably wouldn’t have cared too much about the research or opinions presented, as I understand how business works.  They’re going to tell you what they want you to hear. We don’t know Sal Tessio’s last words, but the almost last words were, “Tell Michael it was only business.”  Michael, we’re assured, understood this.  And we all do.  It’s only business.

But I got angry when a former EM practitioner, who now takes sponsorship from ACT and the College Board at the Symposium he runs each January, suggested test-optional policies were just a publicity stunt, designed solely to increase selectivity or test scores, and the panel nodded in approval as though they were Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine backing up Michael.  It was a shameful attempt to superimpose the endorsement of the profession on an opinion not shared by a substantial percentage of professionals (I’m tempted to say majority, but I don’t have any hard statistics to back up that claim).

So a few points:  First, this chart.  It’s just one of the many fakakta charts used in the presentation.  Go ahead, tell me what it says.  I’ll wait.

The worst part of this is not just how confusing it is: Look at the dual y-axes.  Note how truncated they are.  This is what a bad chart designer does when she is told to prove a point even though a point might not be there.  If the deceptiveness of the truncated y-axis is lost on you, you might want to read How to Lie with Data Visualizations.

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Second, this heatmap, which is in the Chapter about “When grades and test scores disagree.”

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It shows three apparent areas of focus: The oval covering the red section shows when test scores and grades largely agree (the red indicates high concentrations of numbers).  And of course, this is prima facie evidence that tests are simply, for large numbers of students, redundant.  The second oval at top left shows students with high test scores relative to GPA.  These students are not really the focus of test-optional policies; if there were a policy of grade optional, well, maybe we’d want to look at them.  But the third oval at the bottom is the kicker, in the eyes of test fans.  Those are students with ACT scores of 11 and below.  It purports to show–via even colors–that their grades are all over the place!  Some of them even have a 4.0!

Well, yeah, about that.  As I pointed out above, ACT just loves to scare people into thinking test optional admissions policies are all about admitting kids with an ACT Composite Score of 10 or 11.  (Test prep experts tell me if you simply sat down and bubbled in random answers without reading the test booklet, you’d get about an 11 Composite score on the ACT; so these students score at or below the guessing threshold).

Before looking at the chart below, take a guess at what percentage of testers score at 11 or below.  Got a number?  It’s that little green slice of these 100% stacked bars, or about 1% in an average year.  It’s gone up as mandatory state testing has increased; most of these students would probably not take the test if left to their own devices.

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In raw numbers, that’s about 124,000 over 14 years, most of them poor, and most of them African-American and Hispanic.  In 2015, it was about 13,000 out of 1.3 million test takers.  These are not kids applying to moderately, let alone highly, selective institutions. Don’t worry, Yale.  You’re safe.  If each of those boxes in the bottom oval were in fact equal, it would be about 1,000 students per year per box.  Statistical noise.

In case you’re interested in the role income plays in testing, here’s the same data, broken out on the x-axis by income instead of over time.  I claim no responsibility for you breaking your eyes by trying to find the little green slivers among the wealthy populations.

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If you’re still reading, take a gander at this one (keep the chart right above in mind).  It shows that students with lower test scores are less likely to persist.  Given what you now know about tests and income, are you surprised that students with low scores have lower persistence?  Our testing agency researchers are.  It’s almost like money has something to do with college enrollment. (On this chart, H, M and L refer to high medium and low ACT and GPA).

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And finally, the continued pronouncement that test prep doesn’t work.  Really? This contention is something people at the conference literally laugh at: The absurdity of the notion that the only test prep that works in our test prep.  It’s the hill some people want to die on, I guess, and they have that right.

What You Are Dying To Know

Here’s the big thing: I do not give a damn if a college wants to use tests or not; if they want to do video interviews in place of high school transcripts; if they want to require students to do backflips and handstands for the admissions committee; if they want to measure shoe size and research how it affects academic performance, or if they want to admit every applicant with ability to benefit, the way community colleges do.  It’s their decision.

I do care, and I get annoyed, when testing agencies lie and distort in order to save their bacon.  And when they do, I’ll write about it.


PS: Thanks to Brad Weiner for the challenge:

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Legacy Admissions and Eastern Airlines Flight 401

Within minutes of the New York Times breaking report that the Justice Department was going to investigate Affirmative Action in admissions to see if it discriminated against white people (not making this up), seven or eight people posted it in a Facebook group for college admissions people I moderate.  I’m not sure whether it was the topic, or the absurdity of the premise that caused people to respond so dramatically; my guess is that it was a little of both.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that using race or ethnicity in admissions as a single factor among many was constitutional, or in lawyer speak, that it was within the realms of “strict scrutiny,” meaning that the justification for instituting a policy had to serve a compelling interest, had to be narrowly tailored to effect only those outcomes, and had to be no more restrictive than necessary.  This is the same level of scrutiny applied any time a policy may, in some way, be interpreted as infringing on the civil rights of others.

In the SCOTUS ruling, Michigan’s undergraduate policy was shot down, as it awarded points in a review system to applicants who declared certain ethnicities; the law school policy of holistic review, where race was a factor among many was seen as appropriate. Much earlier, the court had shot down quota systems, in the Bakke decision.  But you probably already know this.

And you probably know the Justice Department has since said, “Hey, calm down, everyone.”

The response to this news, however, has renewed criticism of another type of affirmative action, namely, legacy admissions.  In case you don’t know, legacy admissions gives advantage to children of alumni in the admissions process.  It’s often called a “hook” by college counselors, who additionally cite athletes and children of wealthy donors (whether or not they are alumni) as having other “hooks” offering advantages.  (By wealthy donors, we’re talking about people who can build a new library or fund a faculty chair, not your typical, garden variety $500K a year executive.)  The reaction to people criticizing affirmative action is best characterized by this cartoon (credit).


You can argue all day whether these things are just, appropriate, or fair.  You can ask Congress to make them illegal. Just don’t ask the Justice Department to investigate whether they are constitutional.

I’m not a lawyer, of course (and that sound is the Internet saying, “No kidding.”) But I have attended several workshops on the topic, and I confirmed my theory with a professor of constitutional law before writing this, and he agreed.  Of course, there is at least some dissent from the legal community about this.

Unfortunately, I think, there are no narrowly-focused constitutional protections for someone who is the child of poor parents, or of parents who didn’t go to college, just as their is no protection for people who don’t have top 1% athletic skills.  Admitting wealthy kids or alumni kids or athletes violates no civil rights for the less advantaged.  It’s probably not in the purview of the Justice Department, unfortunately.

The longer I do this, the more I see that the whole system is designed to perpetuate advantage (and as much as I don’t like to agree with David Brooks, his first paragraph here is a powerful one); people who have it want to fight to hold it, as you would expect, and they don’t always play fair.

I wrote that the admissions office–even though filled with many people who have the best intentions–might be a part of the problem, and then, because 1000 words wasn’t enough, added 1000 more and ten charts to suggest why.

Among my core beliefs is that our system of education fails many, many deserving students, and collectively, our failure by them is ultimately a failure for the nation.  I think we should fight any and all of our attempts to to keep us from righting the ship, and mostly, I hope we don’t get distracted about the small percentage of students who get a chance at a very small percentage of the nation’s most selective institutions.  We risk the tragedy of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, where a plane full of people went down because three pilots were distracted by a malfunctioning warning light.

Let’s keep our eyes on the big issue, and let’s rely on the support of many like-minded people and organizations to help us do so.



It’s 1984 Again

I can’t even.

On Twitter this morning, I saw this article in the Washington Post.  You should read the article to see how many things you think are wrong, but I’ll give you the one I love.

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If you took logic in college, and if you know anything about how college pricing works, you’ll see right away the Fallacy of Equivocation: Making two things that are not equal equal for the sake of an argument.  In this instance, colleges talk about price as both tuition, or what the sticker price is, which everyone thinks has gone up beyond reality, and net cost to the student.  They say they can lower price to the student, which in this case means the sticker price, not the net cost.  Because, you see, in the same paragraph, they admit that average costs to students are going down, due to competition. They don’t like competition.  It’s bad for them.

The competition they don’t like is a self-inflicted wound, of course, and one they could stop at any time if they wanted to.

Why? Because colleges are chasing prestige, via the enrollment of “high ability” students, which doesn’t mean high ability in the way you think.  It means “high ability” in terms of test scores, which are really, really convenient because they’re represented as a number, which of course is precise and clearly indicates better.  These “high ability” students are in demand, which means colleges–who want to display high median scores–compete for them on price. (If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google University Strategic Plans and see how many don’t talk about raising academic quality as reflected by test scores, or something similar.)

Except, of course, that the tests really don’t tell us who the “high ability” students are (other than they correlate with GPA); they tell us who the wealthy, mostly White students are.  And the wealthy, mostly White students go to the best high schools, as determined by wealthy White people. They get money they don’t “need” (a ridiculous concept if you know anything about EFC calculation) because college costs have risen so dramatically because they want to fund the discounts for the wealthy.

If you think this sounds like an old Abbott and Costello routine, you’re right.

So it’s 1984 again.  In 1984, there existed “The Overlap Group” now replaced by the 568 Group.  The Overlap Group was a consortium of the nation’s highest profile colleges, who have the loftiest market positions, and could effectively set tuition at even unreasonable levels given the demand for their offerings.  These institutions would share admit and financial aid data to arrive at a common EFC for all applicants at those institutions, meaning, in counselor-speak, that students would have effectively the same net price at all the Overlap universities, thus allowing them to choose more on “fit” and less on the nasty, real world concepts of price or value.  How quaint.

Except, of course, when the only ones setting the net price stand to benefit from setting the net price, the ones setting the net price tend to act exactly as you would expect them to.  Duh.  That may mean, of course, students occasionally get a better price at their number one choice; it more likely means that–on average–students pay more, and they don’t get an early lesson in the thing I told my kids since they were old enough to understand: “What does Mick Jagger say?” I’d ask them.  They’d always respond appropriately.

It’s also 1984 in another way.  Everywhere you look these days, absurdity abounds.  I went to look up a specific quote from 1984, just to make sure I got it right.  I went so deep into the quotes I realized you could pick well over half of them to use in this post.  So choose your favorite, and post it in the comments.

And remember: We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.




Do Standardized Tests Encourage More Low-income Students to Go to College? Yes. And No.

A long time ago, some enrollment consultant told me something: Students who visit campus enroll at a higher rate than those who do not.  I already knew this, of course, as do most people who do admissions for ten minutes.

But then, he came up with this gem: “So the goal of your admissions efforts should be to get as many students to visit campus as possible.”  Even then (this was probably 1984 or so), before I had a graduate degree, and after only a couple of undergraduate courses in statistics, I told him he was crazy: Visiting campus doesn’t cause students to enroll; visiting campus is a strong signal of propensity to enroll.  If you randomly selected a hundred students from three states away and bused them to campus against their will, it’s unlikely you’d get one to enroll, let alone the 68 we might have predicted (remember those yield rates when students applied to three colleges?)

It was the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard the latest suggestion that all students should be required to take the SAT or ACT in high school, because, when more students take the test, more students–especially those who are largely invisible to colleges–go to college.

Third-grade me says, “duh.”

Of course, post hoc, ergo propter hoc does not always lead to a faulty conclusion, but in this case, I’d suggest there is even less causality here than meets the eye, even though the paper doesn’t explicitly suggest cause and effect.  However, I’m not sure the average state legislator or member of the local school board has the perspective or the training to make these fine distinctions.  The New York Times has now run with it, and it’s likely to be in the inbox of large numbers of policy makers on Monday morning.

(Whenever I hear the word “selective” in these discussions about getting more students to colleges, it reminds me of the ridiculous work on “undermatching,” that I’ve written about before. People tend to focus on the things that are important to them, and if you went to a selective university, it’s apparently impossible for you to envision how not everyone necessarily wants that for themselves.)

But I digress.

If you work in admissions, you have almost certainly already figured out why kids who take a college entrance exam who otherwise might not have done so end up going to college.  It’s not, I’d suggest, the taking of the test: It’s the fact that the student’s name gets sold over and over to colleges who are searching for students.  The colleges pick up the slack in the process, because many of them believe low-income students can’t be ruled out because of income.  Additionally, the budgets of most colleges and universities are tuition driven, and against decreasing populations of high school graduates,  they are generally eager to generate enrollment to keep themselves operating.

If more students who take the test go to college, it’s probably because dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges rush in to tell them they can go to college, and that they should consider it, and that aid can make it possible.  That’s a powerful message.

If you don’t believe it, talk to any high school counselor about the institutions that like to generate lots of easily denied applications from students just to be more selective. Admissions offices who infrequently admit students with SATs below 1400 coddle and encourage those with scores of 1100, and no amount of discouragement can persuade the students they don’t have a chance.  In the end, the students become grist for the college rejection mill, but the point is, this information barrage works.

So in some sense, requiring students to take the ACT or SAT might be a good faux solution to the larger problem, but it brings with it problems and costs people overlook.  And mostly, I think, it fuels our mis-directed obsession with standardized tests as a measure of something important.  We’ve had lots of lawsuits in admissions that could have been avoided if the public didn’t believe that an SAT was an “academic qualification.”

Study after study has shown that the ACT and SAT add virtually nothing beyond what is already in the file to the predictive equation  when trying to understand who will do well in college. At my institution, tests uniquely explain about 2% of the variance in first-year performance, a figure similar to many other studies.

(An aside here: People like tests for a lot of reasons, as Robert Sternberg has pointed out. To his list, I’d add the very low rate of false positives on the tests.  That is, if you score very well on a test, you clearly have a certain kind of intelligence: The kind that allows you to pick the “right” answer from the four given.  College, at its best, is not like this; neither is life, where you sometimes have to figure out the answer without knowing whether the question is right. Tests alone do predict something, that’s only because tests effectively amplify the signal of high school performance; once you account for high school GPA, saying the same thing again doesn’t make the outcome much clearer.)

The unintended costs of requiring tests would be high, though: More money and instructional time spent on test prep, more teaching to college admissions tests, more benchmarking districts on tests that still measure mostly wealth and ethnicity.  The districts and schools with lower percentages of test takers end up looking the worst (regression to the mean), which kicks off all sorts of shitstorms (a phrase, I’ve discovered, even the Germans have adapted from English given the perfect metaphorical image it creates.) And worst of all, it creates more opportunities for the testing agencies to get their tentacles even farther into curriculum development at the middle-, and even elementary-school levels. The relationship between curriculum development and testing is a dubious one, at best.

I like to remind everyone that no one appointed these companies to do this on our behalf; no government agency appointed them.  They’ve largely done this on their own. These are private companies who develop marginally effective testing services they sell to the public, and who then sell the information they collect to colleges.

Given the state of politics and education, I’m not sure we can actually believe that states are interested in increasing college attendance rates; the party in charge right now rose to power by winning bigly with people who didn’t graduate from college.  But even if you take a charitable view of our representatives, capacity at selective state flagships is unlikely to increase, making this a zero sum game.

Assuming for the sake of argument that states want more students to go to college, they can set up systems to get the student names and reasonable estimates of academic performance to the colleges, who will do this at no cost, or even negative costs, to the states. But don’t try to accomplish this by making your students take a test that is largely useless, and then allow the testing agencies to profit from the sale of the names.

There are willing partners in college attainment out there, and they are, of course, the ones who do the educating.  Increasing attainment doesn’t require testing for more, and certainly not for all.

Our Annual Entitlement Ritual

It happens every year:

First, someone announces that a student, or several students, defied the odds and gained admission into some combination (or all) of the Ivy League universities, plus (sometimes) Stanford or other high profile institutions.  Usually, these students are students of color, and/or children of immigrants.

Second, the media pick it up.  Regular, good old-fashioned people say, “Wow, that’s great!” Regular, good-old fashioned racists say, “Affirmative action is the only reason this student has this success! It’s unfair to White people everywhere, and when is our suffering going to end?”

This post is not about that.

This post is about what happens in our profession, among people who should know better: Among people who can always be expected to stand up for students, except, it seems, on these particular occasions.

This post is about the third thing. So,

Third, people in the profession accuse the student of “Trophy hunting.”  If you’re like most people, you don’t know–but can probably figure out–what this is about.  The accusation is that students are simply attempting to accumulate accolades for themselves.

It’s bullshit.  For a lot of reasons.

First, most of the people making these accusations see the world through their own lens: One where every student has access to good college counseling. One where every student knows why someone who loves Dartmouth, for instance, might not be happy at Brown. One where students have been talking to parents over dinner since they were four years old about going to college, and especially, about going to the right college <wink wink>.

“How could they make such an admissions faux pas?” they scream in unison. “Don’t these students know that one simply does not apply to every Ivy?” You can almost see Thurston Howell III and Lovie getting light headed.  “What were they thinking?” they say, pressing the backs of their hands against their foreheads, while they grab onto something to help prop themselves up.

These are the same people, by the way, who can’t wait to publish their school profiles each year, showing the whole world just how many of their students from the previous graduating class enrolled at–and sometimes just how many were admitted to–The Big 9. This is done to ensure that those colleges feel good about admitting students in the coming year, of course.  When you got a good thing, you keep it going if you know what’s good for you, as Tony Soprano might have said.

But the perception that a student should have been counseled out of this behavior, of course, begs the question.  The majority of students, I’d suggest, don’t have someone showing them the ropes of applying to college and navigating the game.  This is especially true for some (not all) of the students in these stories, many of whom are children of immigrants who work in blue collar jobs, where they don’t rub elbows with America’s prep school graduates who could have taught them how to raise their children.

And do I need to remind you that these students are going through the process for the first time? In the high stakes admissions game, the student gets to play just once.  When someone hits it out of the park the first time up, especially if they do it on their own, we should congratulate them, not criticize them.  We should also remember, of course, that for every one who manages to get the press, there are thousands who completely struck out.  The last time I looked, the Ivy League institutions counted a quarter of a million rejections in just a single year.  They’d fill several newspapers.  Problem is, they’re not news.

The second line of criticism comes from those who point out (duh) that you can only attend one institution, so why bother applying to eight or even nine?  This, I’d remind you, comes from the same people who complain about how impossible it seems for their students to get into even one Big 9 institution; who complain that their best student was shut out of all her top choices despite stellar credentials, even with the benefit of good counseling from someone who knows the game.

Even students without access to good counseling hear this, and they understand the odds, as much as any 17-year-old can understand statistics.  And while the chance of admission is not random, students may see it that way, as they really have no idea what their chances are going into the process; all they have to go on is published admissions statistics, which, taken at face value, actually overestimate a student’s chance of admission at any highly selective institution in regular admission, given the weight to Early Decision and Early Action.

But suppose a student can find a binomial probability calculator on line, and plugs in 9 chances, each with a 10% chance of success (again, admission is not random, and these events are not independent; this is an exercise).  Here’s what they’d get:

ScreenHunter 114 Apr. 05 11.25

The chance of being admitted to at least one (the last box) is 61%.  A little more than half, using optimistic estimates of probability, given highly asymmetrical information.  Does this student think he’s going to get in?

How about getting into all nine? Does she expect admits to nine out of nine? With a one-in-ten thousand chance?  I doubt it.

ScreenHunter 115 Apr. 05 12.11

The third line of criticism suggests that this behavior is wrong because it takes away chances from other students.

ScreenHunter 116 Apr. 05 12.15

No one believes it, but think of it this way: Each of these fine institutions is full every year. Capacity is capped.  In order to be full, each of the students they enroll has to be admitted.  Does this make sense?  If not, the math won’t persuade you.

The real issue, I believe, is that many people feel like these wildcat students, these mavericks who defy convention by applying to all the Big 9, put professional counselors at a disadvantage by refusing to play by the informal rules that make high powered secondary schools and highly selective institutions such cozy partners. If you read between the lines, you could easily suspect this informal rule against applying to all nine is a nice, wink wink, nudge nudge anti-competitive agreement propping up the implicit symbiosis that makes the college admissions game a win-win for certain agents on both sides of the equation.

If we yell enough, and make this behavior seem abhorrent  and somehow unacceptable, they seem to think, perhaps it will go away.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it feels when your privilege is taken away for just a moment in time.  Try to imagine for just a moment what it’s like living your whole life without it.