Why the NFL has nothing to do with Higher Education

I like provocative, abstract, conceptual ideas as much as anybody.  Even absurd comparisons can sometimes be instructive.  I think this has to do with my appreciation for what Samuel Johnson called the “Metaphysical Poets,” like John Donne and Andrew Marvel.  The poets shared a flair for something Johnson called “discordia concors” or finding similarities in things that seem at first to be dissimilar.

So, I appreciate the effort Jerry Lucido at USC put forth in his paper “Lessons from the NFL for Managing College Enrollment.” A pdf version can be found here.

In case you don’t know, the NFL operates very differently from most businesses: In Hamel and Prahalad’s uber-famous article “Strategic Intent,” for instance, we learn the strategy of Komatsu was a simple, two word phrase: Encircle Caterpillar.  Canon’s objective? Beat Xerox.  In this context, “beating” means putting the other player out of business, not winning a game.  The goal of business is maximizing shareholder value, pure and simple; it’s easier to do if you have fewer competitors, or better yet, none at all.

But you can’t play football without another team to play against.  And you can’t play the same team every week without the audience losing interest, so the NFL ensures that all its teams are on sound footing by–in some very real way–limiting competition.  There is a salary cap, for one thing.  A limit to the number of players on your team, and even the practice squads.  New England Patriot haters might also remind you it’s not permitted to videotape other teams as they practice.  And most important, the NFL has revenue sharing, which means much of the money that comes to the NFL via television contracts, endorsements, and merchandising, is split equally among the teams.  The Cowboys and the Jaguars and all the other teams split that pot of money into identical shares, regardless of how well they do in any given year.

Lucido’s thoughts about  limiting competition among colleges and universities by ensuring accurate data, measuring outputs in the same way, and standardizing reply dates is noble.  I’ve written about it before, but I have a different approach to do so.  However, these are really not about the league called the NFL (to extend the analogy); they’re about the game of football.

It’s neither possible, feasible, nor even desirable to limit competition in higher education other ways, especially not in the form of rigid financial aid eligibility calculations and elimination of merit aid.  Why?  Price competition is good for students, unless you believe (and a lot of people in higher education seem to) that every college should cost the same.  The downside of price competition is that sometimes a student has to pay more for a top choice, and can’t or won’t.  The upside is that the student chooses from five or six different places that are all very different at five or six different prices.  This, as we adults have come to understand, is life in America.

But there are other reasons an NFL-type structure won’t work:

  • Each year, every NFL team tries to win the SuperBowl.  The NFL limits competition only to ensure there are games to play, money is made, and the the franchise is a good investment.  But competition within the fixed and closed system continues, and ticket sales increase when teams are more equally matched.  The league does so to maximize profits, which was the goal of Pete Rozelle’s parity principle. And this article headline sums it up pretty well.
  • There is a limit to success in the NFL: The best you can do is win the SuperBowl every year.  It’s like a 300 game in bowling; nothing is better. In higher education, there are no limits, and we’re far more than just teaching institutions.  Society benefits from the scholarship and research and other things universities do.  It can all get better, almost without limits.
  • Competition is an essential element of the NFL; without competition, there is no league.  In higher education, competition is accidental element; we don’t exist to compete, but competition is an outgrowth of trying to get better.  Unlike football, if there were only one university left, it could go on.
  • There is no NFL for higher education, and if there were, who would reap the benefits?  You could argue that the benefits are societal, and you’d be right.  But after a while, the benefits from a stagnant and moribund ecosystem decline rapidly, I think.
  • Most important, every NFL team plays the exact same game.  The 3,000 colleges and universities in the US are all playing different games, based on mission, location, resources, degree offerings, institutional resources, and aspirations.  This wide range of institutions is good for the country and the choice is good for students.

So, as I said, Dr. Lucido’s idea is an interesting and compelling one.  It would have been fun to toss around over a few beers after a long day in the trenches.  But the premise does not hold up to deeper scrutiny.

So, if you agree or if you don’t, let me know.  And if you want to read about an idea that I think is worthy of further discussion, and is in fact much more “out there” than this one, try this. (This link will only work for five days, unless you have a subscription.)

Grinnell to Poor Kids: Dance Backwards

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.”

–Frank and Ernest

As I checked my Twitter feed this morning, the tweets came fast and furious: Grinnell College will stay need blind, but will think about raising loan caps and will try to recruit more wealthy students.

Read it again.

I’m normally contrarian, of course, but even I hardly know where to begin. (Time for full disclosure: I used to work at Grinnell, as Associate Director of Admissions from 1990 to 1993; I know how hard it is to recruit nationally to the middle of Iowa.)

The term “need-blind.”

First, to summarize my frequent rants about this stuff:  There is no such thing as need blind admissions.  It may be true that admissions officers don’t see the FAFSA results in their deliberations.  That’s not need blind, for the simple reason that you can still easily see:

  • How (and if) the parents are employed.  Nurse, plumber, teacher, lawyer, neurosurgeon, warehouse inventory manager, corporate acquisition specialist.  All the same?
  • The school the student attends: Garfield, New Trier, Madame Curie, Choate-Rosemary, Minneapolis South, Harvard-Westlake: All the same?  Visit the websites, and even if you’ve never heard of those schools, you’ll see pretty quickly.
  • Free time: Captain of the lacrosse team, 25 hours a week at Subway.  Equal?

You see the point.  When colleges say they think test scores are important (and they often do, right there in the strategic plan where they say they want to raise them), they favor wealthier students who can take them four times and pay for expensive prep courses.  When colleges say curricular rigor is important, they favor wealthy high schools with better facilities and dozens of AP courses, which the wealthy parents demand.  When an essay is a part of the evaluation, you favor kids who have been crafting them since sophomore year, often with the help of consultants or college-educated adults, over the kids who don’t even understand why or how much an essay matters. If a college considers teacher or counselor recommendations critical, guess who does those better: a) Prep Schools where a counselor might have a college-counseling caseload of 50, b) Better-resourced public schools, where counselors might have 400 or more students to work with on college between all the other things counselors do, or c) An under-resourced urban school where few attend college and there might (I stress “might” ) be one counselor for 1,500 students?  How about demonstrated interest?  I hope you get the point, and I hope journalists stop using the term “need-blind admissions.”  And I really have nothing against wealthy people or wealthier school districts.  My kids attend one.

Essentially, the very belief that we have “need-blind admissions” perpetuates the problem: We think of poverty as financial, rather than cultural: Poor kids meet different people, they have different opportunities, they watch different TV shows, and they may not hear about going to college around the dinner table.  It makes a difference, and it shows up: The wealthiest, weakest students go to college at the same rate as the smartest, poorest students.  But that noble phrase allows us to feel good while we’re asking poor students to dance backwards in high heels.

The zero-sum game:

I presume that Grinnell, a residential liberal-arts college, has a somewhat fixed capacity; they did when I was there.  In a zero-sum game, when  someone wins, someone loses.  If they want to enroll more wealthy students (and, by the way, why hasn’t anyone thought of that brilliant idea before?…I’m not even going to give that its own section) it means they’ll have fewer poor students.  And thus, it’s no longer enough to dance backwards and in high heels.  Now you have to go all Lil Buck on them.  Although I don’t think he wears high heels.

The money angle:

Grinnell has an endowment of, depending on the day, about $1.5 billion.  Assuming a very conservative draw down of 4% per year, that means $60,000,000 annually.  For ever.  That could run a lot of small liberal arts colleges (hell, it could run 10% of DePaul, with 16 times more students) without charging tuition.  But the great thing about Grinnell is that there is almost no student need that goes unmet; that’s expensive.  The bad thing about Grinnell is it’s obsessive about money, and it sometimes, I think, causes bad decisions.  (I fondly tell people that after my first recruiting trip for Grinnell in 1990, my expense reimbursement check was docked about a dollar because I over-tipped by that amount.)

If you don’t know Guidestar.org you really should; register and get an account today.  It compiles the tax forms 990 for almost all not-for profit institutions (all not-for-profits are required to make this document public).  Take a look at the 2011 Form 990 for Grinnell: Part XII shows $224 Million in unrealized gains on investments.  While it may be true that $1.5 billion in endowment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I think the “we’re poorer than people think” argument only goes so far.

What do you think?  If Grinnell can’t afford to guarantee it will stay need blind, is the rest of higher education totally screwed?

Fixing the Problem That Isn’t

We continue to read more each day about SAT score reporting irregularities at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities.  And now that another has joined the crowd, there are calls from people to fix the “problem” and suggestions about how to do so.

Only one problem: There is no problem.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s unethical to report false scores.  In general, it’s not a good thing to lie (before you accuse me of moral relativism, to which I’d plead guilty anyway, philosophers seem to agree that it might be acceptable to lie when faced with a threat.  And the Dutch philosopher and lawyer Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) taught that a lie is not really wrong if the person being lied to has no right to the truth.) But in this case, it’s wrong.

Before I go farther, an aside: I know people at most of the places where these reporting irregularities occurred.   And I don’t think for one minute that any of them did this solely of their own volition.  Google College and University Strategic Plans and read a few that you find.  Notice how many talk about “increasing academic quality,” or “becoming more selective” or even the explicit “raising test scores in the freshman class.”   Some even say they want to move up in the rankings.  Right there.

So while the buck stops in the admissions office, it almost certainly didn’t start there.  And if the pressure wasn’t explicit, you can bet it  was implicit; there is no office at the University that gets measured and evaluated more than the admissions office.  It can be a pressure cooker at some places.  I’m grateful I don’t deal with that in my job, but if my mortgage depended on it, I’d think long and hard.

And a second aside: The test scores don’t matter.  Want proof?  No one on the faculty at these places, as far as I can tell, ever raised a hand and said, “You know, we publish mean SAT Scores of 1370, but somehow these freshmen seem more like 1330 to me.” You’d think they’d know, wouldn’t you? Anyone who picks a college based on test scores probably chooses a prom date based on teeth. You have every right to do so, but don’t blame anyone but yourself when you’re disappointed.

The test scores have only become important because magazines like to publish them and use them to calculate quality.

Having now said there is no problem, I’m going to offer a solution anyway:  I think it’s time for us to consider creating a National Clearinghouse for Undergraduate Admissions.  Everybody gives up something in exchange for something else in an attempt to make everything better overall.  It’s a simple application of game theory.

Here’s how it would work: All transactions would be managed through a central location.  Students submit one application with biographical data.  High Schools submit one transcript.  Testing agencies send scores.  The students submit their essays or supplements.  Recommenders submit their recommendations.  The student sends it all to the college he or she wants to apply to with a click.

All acceptances, all aid, and all student responses are managed through the Clearinghouse.

First benefit: Colleges get the whole application package at once  No more missing documents.  And every file is complete. No more counting Part I as applications; no more Fast Apps that inflate numbers.  In the race to look more selective, colleges lose the stealth tactic of counting things differently. This is good for students.

Second benefit: Colleges know where the student is applying, and maybe even the order of preference.  This makes decisions easier and allows us to offer slots to students who are more serious about us.  This is good for colleges.

Third benefit: All the data is available to the public (in aggregate, of course, not at the student level).  If you live in Wyoming and you’re applying to HYP and you want to see the stats on students from Wyoming, you can do that.  If you’re first generation Latino and want to see how students like you fared, you can see that.  If your parents want to know how much aid families with two in college and in your income band got, they can see that.  And they can see how much of it was based on need and how much of it was based on merit.  If you work in Congress and want to see how much of an advantage athletes or legacies get, you can see that.  Want to see the real, actual SAT or ACT average of every member of the freshman class last year?  It comes right from the data, not a university administrator.  This is good for students.  And in the longer term, good for colleges too.  How? The data available for research after the admission cycle is over includes information about the student you already have, but also information you currently don’t, like where they attended, how much aid the institution awarded, and you can use this information to get better.

Fourth benefit: Students can only deposit one place at a time.  No more depositing three places and deciding after orientation. This is good for colleges.

Ultimately, it could back up farther: Imagine a world where colleges recruit students they want, and they actually disclose that.  No more whining about not being able to find smart poor kids.  No more buying hundreds of thousands of names of kids to recruit so you can deny them; the buy and the admit profiles have to line up.  Student information in the Clearinghouse can serve as the new way in which colleges find out about kids.  And perhaps the way kids find out about colleges.  This would be good for everyone.

There would be lots of things to think about, of course: ED and EA cycles, different ways of reviewing applications, pre-admissions offers, and other things we can’t yet anticipate.  But if we believe the system is currently serving no one well; and if we believe that this system is essentially based on the paper-and-pencil application process many of us grew up with, doesn’t it make sense to think about changing it?

I think so.  But let me know what you think.

Why Smart Poor Students Don’t Apply to Selective Colleges (And How NOT to Fix It)

I graduated from high school in 1977 (I’m 54…to save you the math).  Up until then, I had lived my whole life in Dubuque, a great place to be from, and a city that is probably in better shape today than it was then.  In our family, you went to Catholic School, but after sophomore year of high school, you were on your own for most things, including tuition at the local Catholic High School.  So to make ends meet, I worked at a pizza place called the Shot Tower Inn.  Typically, I’d work one week night and two of the three weekend nights, usually about 25 hours a week; sometimes 32 or 33 in a pinch.  I’d get home about 12:30 and get up for school the next morning at 6:30.  I was young; it wasn’t hard.

I made about $2.10 an hour, if I recall, which was minimum wage.  Had I worked full-time, that would have translated into about $4,400 per year.  From the money I did earn (about $3,000, I guess), I had to pay my tuition, $450 a year, and buy my clothes.

I tell you this because of what happens next: I apply to college (one school, after a five-minute conversation with my best friend about where he was going) and proceeded to fill out a Financial Aid Form.  I was stunned, right off the bat: In that year, my dad’s income was about $17,000.  My mom didn’t work outside the home.  He ran heavy equipment for a living, and had baby fingers bigger in circumference than my thumbs.  He worked hard for about four or five times what I made, but had to support a whole family on it.  It was the first time I knew how poor we were. (I’m not stupid; I never thought we were wealthy.)

I remembered this as I read the well-intentioned but completely off-base article by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic with an almost identical title as this blog post.  What do we learn from Mr. Thompson, who, we’re told, is the Senior Editor, overseeing Business Coverage?

  • The biggest problem in getting smart poor kids to enroll is advertising.  We simply need to tell them in a convincing way that they should go.
  • And we need to stop scaring them with stories of debt.
  • But beyond that, they have to apply to our “best colleges.” I counted for you.  After the headline, he uses the term “selective” eight times.
  • Mr. Thompson thinks you’ll be surprised that 40 percent of top performing students come from the poorer half of the country.
  • This is because–get ready–“…a ‘critical mass’ of the country’s brightest students tend to live in country’s densest and richest in urban areas — New England, New York, southern Florida, coastal California — the poor students who don’t apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country.

Better yet, the solution is simple.  Just do more of what we already do: “There are four ways that most colleges reach out to students: (1) College board mailing lists; (2) College counselors; (3) College access programs; (4) High school visits.”

Really.  That’s it.  It reminds me of a trustee who once asked me if we ever considered mailing catalogs to high schools.

I’ll let you comment and tell Mr. Thompson how wrong he is about almost everything, and how arrogant he comes across to many people who are either poor or not from those areas with the critical mass of bright people.  Or maybe you can tell him that his failure to recognize how patronizing he sounds to most people–regardless of income or education, I hope–may be part of the problem poor kids face when they think about attending college, especially the “selective” places that don’t enroll many poor kids because they’re unwilling to think differently about what makes someone qualified for admission.  Just comment below.

But for now, a short story: When I was about 28, I worked at the University of Dallas.  I had my degree; I’d been working in admissions for about five years.  One day, I went to a meeting at another college in the Metroplex.  I pulled up and saw student lots full of BMW’s and Mercedes and other fine, imported luxury sedans.  And, in my Ford Escort, I felt intimidated.  I felt like I didn’t belong.  Imagine being 17 and feeling that way.

So, anything you want to tell Mr. Thompson?  Have at it.  If enough of you reply, I’ll send him a link.


Note: I published this on January 29th and the next day, I found this chart from the document “The Condition of Education 2012.” (link here).

Parental Attainment

How much is a Rejected Application Worth?

I used to have lunch almost every day with a group of faculty who were from the sciences, economics, and finance.  Occasionally someone from English or Political Science would join the table, but the types of discussions that went on scared some people and seemed to repulse others.  Although I’m a long way from Libertarian, I found the talks amusing and intellectually stimulating, and appreciated seeing how others view the world.  It was Freakonomics before anyone had heard of Freakonomics, and I will never think of brown snakes in New Guinea the same way again.

One of the finance professors loved telling the story of his introductory course in Finance for beginning MBA students.  He’d love to go over valuation of projects when there was a potential cost of human life with one alternative.  Someone would invariably pop up with the observation, “But you can’t put a value on a human life.”

The answer was swift, in the form of an example: “Suppose we could develop a drug to save a thousand humans, but it would cost a million dollars.  Should we do it?”  The answer would come back immediately: “Of course we should.”  Then, the professor would ask, “What if we could develop a drug to save just one person if it cost a trillion dollars.  Should we do that?”  To which the student would reply, “Probably not.”  “So,” the professor would gloat, “maybe we can’t pin down the price of a human life , but we’ve just narrowed the possibilities.”  The lesson: Everything has a monetary value in the world of finance.  This is why, for instance, railroads won’t protect every rural crossing with gates; it’s actually cheaper to pay off the lawsuits when deaths happen than it is to construct crossing gates everywhere a track and a rural road intersect.

The faculty were naturally interested in my work, and one day I pondered about calculating the value of a rejected application for admission.  It’s clear that it’s worth something: The more you reject, the greater the public seems to value what you offer; the more demand for what you offer, the higher the price you can charge.  And this is before we calculate the other benefits of selectivity.  Of course, there is frequently a cost to generating more applications so you can reject more students, but this is always a factor in the discussion.

I still wonder.

Part of what I do is to collect data from a group of about 30 other colleges and universities each month.  After having done this a while, you notice that applications at one institution can swing wildly from one year to the next. Take a look for instance, at the most recent month’s report, made anonymous and sorted randomly.  This shows the increase in one year, measured at January 1, for freshmen for the upcoming fall term:

ScreenHunter_17 Jan. 24 10.31

Pretty wild, huh?  We all read these reports with a grain of salt.  Some colleges had a weak year last year, so an increase can mean things are just returning to normal.  Some have special missions that means their markets fluctuate quickly.  Others had great years last year, and are just coming back down to earth.  But more often than not, colleges are using artificial means to generate large numbers of phantom or “soft” applications.  If you’re a high school counselor, you may know some of these tactics as Fast Apps, Snap Apps, VIP Apps, or you may know them by some other name.  Essentially, they make it easier and faster to apply.  More important, they make it easy for colleges to appear to be more selective than they really are.  (For the record, we at DePaul don’t do use any of those techniques, although we are a member of The Common Application, and have seen increases in applications since we joined.)

As has been pointed out, sometimes students apply just because they can, not because they want to.  And that’s the rub for me: While I believe we should make it easier to apply to college (think back to typing apps for each college on an IBM Selectric, or filling them out by hand), I don’t believe applying to college should be like an impulse purchase of chewing gum in the grocery store checkout aisle.

So, I read with interest this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Boston College’s dramatic drop in applications this year.  The reason cited? They made it harder to apply, by adding a specific essay prompt to the application.  Applications fell by 26%, from about 34,000 to 25,000.

In many ways, this is good: Those who do apply will be far more serious about BC, I’m sure, and yield will likely go up.  But in the end, so will admit rates.  And we all know that the whole industry of evaluating colleges and universities is based mostly on inputs, including selectivity.

You see the problem? BC will admit a lower number, but probably a higher percentage of applications.  They’ll spend less time evaluating applications from students with lower affinity in the first place, and more time on students with more interest.  This is good, right?  Right?

Will the fact that BC’s admit rate is going up  cause students to not apply for admission next year because they tie the perception of quality to the often-times manipulated statistic of admission rates?  Or will the perception (and I stress “perception”) that BC is now slightly easier to get into actually drive more students to apply next year: Students who in previous years might have thought they didn’t have a chance?

We’ll see.  The extent to which a prominent, non HYP university can make a move like this and pull it off is speculative.  I wish BC a great deal of luck.  Ultimately, I hope to find out the value of a rejected application, or more precisely, the value of not rejecting applications.

More on Non-Cognitive Variables

I’m back from the USC CERPP Conference on non-cognitive variables in the college admissions process, where I gave a presentation on the results we’ve seen at DePaul, and offered some commentary on the whats and whys of what we as a profession are doing.

In a nutshell, here’s what I said in my presentation:

  • Most admissions people know that the things we collect at the point of admission do only a so-so job of predicting how well students will do in college.
  • We also find lots of kids who have “something” that we think will help them despite academic records that might suggest otherwise.
  • Many of the things we do look at tend to correlate with income.  Correlation does not imply causation, of course, but regardless, if we consider them important, some students benefit while others don’t.
  • The world’s great thinkers have struggled with cause and effect, and especially with prediction inside a complex system.  This is especially true when we suspect there are variables yet undiscovered that might lead to insight.
  • We may have the “poodle problem.”  That is, if we have a poodle, we know it’s a dog; if we have a dog, we can’t be sure it’s a poodle.  In the same way, if we say that students who succeed have certain traits, that does not mean that all students with those traits will succeed.
  • Non-cognitive variables, as we currently understand them, make our jobs a little, but not a lot, easier.  But a) that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually be more helpful especially if we find better ways to measure them, and b) it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

Some other things that stick in my mind as I get over jet-lag:

  • We all owe a great deal to Bill Sedlacek, for his amazing pioneering work in this field.
  • The Morehead-Cain Scholarship Program seems to be way ahead of the rest of us in understanding this stuff.
  • We saw research that suggested that the LSAT may predict who will be a good law student, but actually is a negative predictor of who will be a good lawyer.  Really amazing stuff.
  • Challenging the ridiculous premise that  “GPA + test scores = merit”  is perhaps our greatest challenge as a profession.  We have a long way to go in effecting the collective belief.
  • As is almost always the case, the people I meet at conferences like this are interesting, smart, and really dedicated to their profession and in making the world a better place.
  • It was good to hear David Coleman speak about change in the College Board, and I’m glad they’ll be releasing data to colleges to support our work, but I didn’t hear enough to convince me over a talk at dinner.
  • In my opinion, the premise upon with Richard Sander based his research for “Mismatch” could have and should have been vetted by talking to someone who can help him understand things more clearly.  (He’s both an economist and a lawyer, two professions, I’m afraid, that tend to believe they can look at anything and figure it out with just a rigorous intellect.)

On that last point, let me give you an example:  Sander posted a chart (a really horrible chart, by the way) that showed widely varying completion rates for students who selected STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors.  But he fails to see his own fallacy of equivocation: If we lump all “students who select a STEM major as a freshman” into a group, we already fail to recognize an important concept: That wealthier students, from more affluent schools, with college educated parents, and access to better college guidance, have selected STEM majors after a fairly rigorous sorting process.  The advantaged ones who probably should not be in STEM fields have weeded themselves out; for poorer kids with fewer advantages, the freshman courses serve the purpose good counseling could have done.  But I don’t see any control for that fact, a fact that would have been obvious to anyone who’s done this job for a while. (Note: I’ve not read his book, and it’s possible that somewhere in a footnote this is addressed, but he made no reference to it in the presentation.)

Overall, this was one of the best conferences I’ve been to.  It’s great to talk about and hear about something other than the same issues we hash and re-hash on an annual basis.  I hope next year’s is equally good.

Explaining Test-optional with (almost) no statistics

I’ve been enjoying the holiday break, one of the nicest parts about working at a university.  It’s normally a time to sit back and take stock of the year while looking forward to getting back to work soon after the first of January.

As I checked my Twitter feed this morning, I noticed NACAC had posted a link to an opinion article in US News and World Report, written by Kathryn Juric of the College Board.  I know that the author of an article seldom writes the headline or creates the link of the article off the homepage, but this one grabbed me:  Colleges Must Keep the SAT Requirement.

OK, I think. I’m uniquely capable of responding, based on two things: First, I’m a member of the Midwest Regional Council of the College Board, and also help plan the Midwest Regional Forum.  I like and respect the people I come in contact with there. And, I work at a Test-optional University.

The article sounds a bit defensive, at least to this English major who was fairly good at reading subtext amid context.  I can handle that, and I understand it.  As Upton Sinclair famously wrote,  “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  If you feel your livelihood is under attack, you might take offense.  I would.  I am.

But the attempt to lump the whole test optional approach into one collective movement that “scapegoats” all standardized exams is at least immature reasoning, and at worst sophistry, using the logical fallacies of Begging the Question, and The Fallacy of Composition.  There certainly are people who are militantly anti-test.  And there are people who point out that there are issues of non-equal performance based gender, income, and ethnicity, and who have concerns about access to college based on such an exam.  Those people hardly account for the whole test-optional movement, although those points are good ones that should not be dismissed.

For me, the move to test-optional was really two-fold: First, there was and is the research conducted by people outside the testing industry.  That research is,  for the most part, pretty conclusive and unanimous: Standardized tests don’t really tell us a lot we don’t already know, at least not at the 85% of the universities in the country who are brave enough to acknowledge they’ll never run admissions like Princeton does.

Sidebar: A little bit of statistics without formal statistics talk: In our internal studies, standardized test scores uniquely explain very little of a student’s performance at DePaul.  (This is important: Other colleges may have different results, something the pro-testing people never seen to want to admit, which, I think, makes their argument much weaker.)  Standardized tests may appear to explain performance because they tend to co-vary with grades in college-prep classes, which are the most important predictor in every study I’ve ever seen, by a substantial measure.  (In other words, most students with high grades in a given school have higher test scores, and vice versa.  So test scores simply repeat and amplify the high school grade signals.)  What was most surprising to me was that this was true across all schools, with the possible exception of the very lowest schools on the socio-economic and college-bound scales.  We know poor kids and/or kids from families without college-educated parents don’t go to college.  I suspect the most overlooked factor in this is the very things colleges think those students need to be successful in the first place.  As I said in my post “The Myth of Need-blind Admissions,”  here:

It’s true that these institutions do a great job of funding poor students they admit.  The problem appears to be that they don’t admit many of them in the first place.  This is the myth of need-blind admissions: All these institutions (I think) claim to be need blind, but when they make admissions decisions, they only pay attention to the income part of low-income, not the residual effects.  If you use SAT or ACT; if you favor students who have lots of AP courses; if you effectively reward expensive test-prep programs; or even if you prize activities that can only be mastered if you have lots of time because you don’t have to work, you’re overlooking a lot of things that come with being poor, or even middle-class.  Need blind admissions is a nice, noble-sounding term. It’s not so pretty in reality.

The research and statistics part is important, of course, as we don’t do much in higher education without them.

But for many, the test-optional movement is based on a different approach and philosophy.  So, without statistics, a few observations:

  • There is no doubt that standardized tests measure some type of intelligence.  The ability to quickly choose the correct answer from four given is a skill, and it’s fairly important skill: Separating the wheat from the chaff is often very important in logic, for instance, or even mathematics.  (The creator of the “bubble test,” however, Frederick Kelly, called this  “lower-order thinking.”
  • And as I’ve written before, selective colleges really like this: When you have thousands of well qualified applicants, you can select from those who have both proven academic success and that special skill that comes with doing well on standardized tests. It adds a small additional measure of precision, they think, to an inherently imprecise decision.  It’s unlikely any university in the Ivy League is going test-optional.  Despite their lofty reputations, they have too much riding on the SAT Arms race.  It’s good for them to cite standardized test scores that are off the charts. If you want to look up your favorite, you can do so here, with 2011 IPEDS data.
  • However, college work is really not very much like a standardized test.  And neither is life.  It’s just not that often when someone comes to you and gives you a problem, tells you the answer and three wrong ones, and then requires you to pick the correct one out of the bunch.  Usually, you find, the number of possible answers are quite numerous, there is no single answer that’s perfect, and often, the problem presented can’t always even be placed in the form of a proper short question.
  • Nor does a standardized test tell us whether you’re going to be capable of sticking with a subject for a semester, adept at getting an assignment and spending hours researching it and writing a paper, or contributing to class discussions.  But you know what does?  Your record of doing just that for four years in high school.
  • As a parent, I’m concerned by the extent to which standardized testing has taken over much of what is done in schools today.  Make no mistake:  People in charge of schools are held accountable for the outcomes on these tests, and the result is multiple choice tests in almost every class, including English literature, and history. Taking a standardized or multiple choice test is a skill that can be honed over time, and if performance on the test is the measure, kids are going to be tested this way.
  • I’m also concerned by the ways in which standardized testing have come to be the focus of the junior year.  I attended a college program with my son, and three quarters of it was about testing: Where, when, how often, which test prep,etc.  I’ve known parents who made kids give up activities they love to prepare for college entrance exams.  Exams, that in the end, may not tell us much about anything important. And I think what is lost in the race is time to develop thinking, writing, problem solving, aimless exploration that leads to discovery, creativity, and other important skills teenagers should be developing.

Tests may help us distinguish between dogs and poodles. We can posit of course, that

  • All poodles are dogs (or) All good testers are smart
  • Not all dogs are poodles (or) Not all smart people are good testers
  • You can be a dog who is not a poodle (or) You can be smart with being a good tester
  • And we must admit that all non-dogs cannot be poodles (or) Let’s admit that if you’re not very smart, you won’t score well on standardized tests.  That’s not the point.

Robert Sternberg, the Provost of Oklahoma State University wrote a most eloquent piece about some of the conceptual problems with standardized testing.  I hope people at the College Board and people who are proponents of standardized testing read it and consider that maybe everything they’ve come to believe about the value of tests might be wrong–not for everyone, not for every college, not in every situation–but for a substantial percentage of our students.  These students are right, capable, talented, motivated, eager to learn, accomplished as students..but maybe not especially proficient at picking out the right answer.  And they shouldn’t be measured by a test created by someone who’s never taught them.

These students and the colleges who want them to become productive, educated people should really pose no threat to the College Board.  If you want to lead educational reform, start by acting educated.