College Access Counseling

My firm, College Access Counseling, Ltd., works with adults and organizations who counsel and support first-generation and minority students on the way to college. I teach the ins and outs of the college process, helping them build social and cultural capital for their students. Click here for more information. I also write for NACAC's blog, Admitted. You can read my entries as well as some of my colleagues', here. Click here to read one of my entries in the New York Times's blog, The Choice.

January 13, 2005

Common Sense (Apologies to Thomas Paine)

This is a revised version of an earlier post. I printed this up and passed it out at the Midwestern College Board meeting last year.

Lessening the Role of Standardized Testing in College Admission

The inability of standardized testing to add significantly to any discussion about education and the preparedness of students for college is well known. Even more disturbing, increased emphasis on standardized testing in grade school and high school contributes to the elimination of academic courses such as history and laboratory sciences. “Teaching to the test” is rapidly becoming more important than real education. Colleges can and should speak out against the destruction of the academic environment they prize. High school teachers and counselors should speak out against the continued erosion of true academic qualities in the wake of artificial (and commercially-oriented) standards that fail to take educational realities into account.

There are many reasons to eliminate or significantly reduce the emphasis on standardized testing in education and college admission:

1. It devalues true educational achievement. The results of a single test can outweigh a student’s entire high school record. Students feel compelled to try to improve their test scores, crowding out time better spent on studying or enriching extracurricular activities. The tests help ruin the very thing colleges value,“studenthood.”

2. It doesn’t really measure anything. Because the tests are so coachable, little is really being measured besides a student’s ability to take the test.

3. It represents a discredited faith in our ability to quantify human achievement. Early test makers thought a number could represent a person’s intelligence, level of achievement, or other characteristics. Like phrenologists, they wanted to classify humans into types by looking at supposedly inherent characteristics. Current educational theory has shown that students can’t be so easily defined.

4. It has become an end in itself. Its place as a supposedly dispassionate measurement of student “aptitude” has been usurped by the many ways available consciously to circumvent it.

5. It follows market & political forces, not educational understanding. The addition of a writing section on the new SAT was a commercial, not an educational, decision. No one except the testing agencies believes it will improve writing in the classroom, and test scores are brutal shorthand for politicians who fail to understand the real complexities of education. Teachers will be pressured to “teach to the test,” not to teach better writing.

6. It’s useful until it’s not. Admission offices lionize high scores but ignore them when it’s convenient or necessary, such as when “special interest” admits are concerned.

7. It’s redundant. High school GPA has been shown to predict freshman year success better and is based on actual achievement, not myth. Numerous studies have shown that success on the tests correlates highly with the class and income levels of the test-takers, information readily available in the application itself.

8. It short-circuits common sense about real human beings. How many times has an admission officer sighed, “Andrea is exactly what we’re looking for but her scores are a little low”? Common sense is trumped by voodoo numbers.

9. It is used to measure things it wasn’t designed to measure. College admission tests were designed primarily to predict a student’s success in college freshman year. Using them to “benchmark” high school quality, for example, is inappropriate. (And if the tests really measure something “innate” what difference does the high school make?)

10. Its prominence has warped the college admission process. The fight to stay “on top” in rankings often forces colleges to put testing ahead of other valuable but less tangible characteristics (citizenship, thoughtful-ness, risk-taking) when they discuss students, often to their own detriment.

11. It rewards superficial and irrelevant characteristics. It has been demonstrated that one can do well on the reading comprehension section without having read the passages provided. The ability to sit in a room for a limited amount of time and fill in ovals has little to do with academics.

12. It’s expensive. Aside from actual testing fees, the costs of testing rapidly escalate if one includes tutoring, test prep books, and sending score reports. For many students (those who can afford it) taking the tests only once is no longer an option, effectively doubling or tripling the cost. The expense of test prep and other aids further widens the divide between haves and have-nots.

13. Its main value is efficiency, not substantive evaluation. Testing is a shorthand way to say someone is “bright” or “underachieving” but it fails to detect the “out of the box” thinker that only perceptive and hardworking human beings can uncover.

Speak up, speak out for common sense!

There’s nothing illegal or immoral about not using standardized testing in college admission.

Join the ranks of educators and college admission offices opposed to the continued destruction of American education by standardized testing.

Join colleges like Pitzer, Sarah Lawrence, Wheaton, Haverford, Middlebury, Franklin & Marshall, Bates, Bowdoin, Dickinson, and many others who have successfully explored alternatives to standardized testing.

For a lengthy list of hundreds of testing-alternative schools, visit

Further developments are being planned.
To express your support and request more information, visit:

Written and published by Willard M. Dix

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