Wake Forest University

September 2010

Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

Archive for September, 2010

A Kaleidoscope Approach to Admissions

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

sternberg bookBack in the day when standardized college admissions tests were created, most applicants were white males in the middle- to upper-middle-class. Today, applicants are from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. That’s one of the reasons why Robert J. Sternberg, the new provost of Oklahoma State University, is urging college admissions deans to go beyond standardized test scores and high school GPA and consider a wide range of qualities when ranking applicants.

The admissions strategy Sternberg is espousing is called the “Kaledioscope” system, and it has been used successfully at Tufts University where he served as dean of arts and science for the last five years. We first wrote about the system on this blog last year.  Now Sternberg has outlined the details of the experiment in a new book called College Admissions for the 21st Century (Harvard University Press)

In an interview with Inside Higher Education , Sternberg said the Kaleidoscope system is based on the view that a college education should produce leaders who will make a positive difference in the world. That’s why questions are based on a theory of leadership called WICS, which stands for wisdom, intelligence, creativity, synthesized.

In a nutshell, the system entails assessing applicants’ creative, analytical, practical and wisdom-based skills. For example, applicants might be asked creative questions like “write a story with a title such as ‘The End of MTV’ or submit a creative video via YouTube. Or in assessing analytical thinking, the question might be: ‘What is your favorite book and why?’ An example of a practical item would be to explain how you would convince a friend to change their viewpoint on an issue. A wisdom-based question could be to explain how you would take a current passion and transform it later to serve the common good.

While the responses are rated holistically, they also are based on rubrics. In addition, the system’s ability to predict college success has been validated statistically, Sternberg said. Furthermore, while traditional standardized tests show “substantial ethnic-group differences, Kaldeidoscope measures do not,” Sternberg said, adding that the measures are designed to supplement traditional assessments, not replace them.

Measurements like the ones in the Kaleidoscope system reflect 21st century thinking, in contrast to standardized tests, which have remained largely unchanged for the last 100 years, Sternberg said.

“Those who work for testing organizations might see this constancy of measurement as a positive thing. But imagine if other technologies, such as in telecommunications or medicine, were largely stuck a century in the past!” he said. “The problem, as I see it, is that the skills measured by traditional tests are quite narrow and do not adequately reflect the full range of skills needed for college and life success.”

College Board and FairTest go Head to Head

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Fair Test’s Bob Schaeffer’s Washington Post commentary on How the ACT caught up with the SAT elicited a quick response from The College Board, maker of the SAT. As reported on this blog, Schaeffer outlined three key reasons why just as many high school seniors took the ACT this year as the SAT. But he concluded by reiterating his organization’s view that doing away with the requirement for standardized entrance exams – so called test-optional policies – may be the best choice of all for college-bound students.

In his response, the College Board’s Laurence Bunin pointed out that approximately 95 percent of all four-year U.S. colleges and universities still require college entrance exams as part of their admissions process. He also reiterated the College Board’s view that the SAT is “very predictive of both a student’s college academic performance and a student’s likelihood of staying in college (retention). “

“The SAT is the most rigorously researched and designed test in the world, and is consistently shown to be a fair and valid predictor of college success, regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status,” Bunin concluded. “The false notion, advanced by FairTest, that these tests are biased is one that is largely rejected within mainstream psychology.”

Given the opportunity to respond, Schaeffer pulled no punches. Bunin’s claim that the SAT is a “fair national benchmark” is false, he said. By way of evidence, Schaeffer pointed to studies  published by the College Board, the test’s sponsor and the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SAT, that show the exam under predicts the performance of females, students whose home language is not English, and college applicants who have been out of school for several years.

“Such systematic under-prediction,” Schaeffer concludes, “is the classic, technical definition of test bias.”

How the SAT lost its dominant position

Monday, September 20th, 2010

How did the “Avis” of college standardized testing overtake the “Hertz” of the field? That’s the question Bob Schaeffer addresses in his Washington Post blog post on how the ACT caught up with the rival SAT, the dominant college entrance exam for the past 80 years. A new report shows that for the first time ever, the same number of high school seniors – about 1.5 million — took each test this year. But that’s not because the ACT is a better test than the SAT, says Schaeffer, who is the public education director of FairTest. In fact, neither test is as good at predicting college academic performance as high school grades, he writes. Both tests also have similar problems with biases against minorities, he adds.

There are actually three key reasons why the SAT lost its dominant position, Shaeffer says. For starters, the ACT is more “consumer-friendly” because it does not deduct points for incorrect answers and has always allowed students to decide which scores colleges receive. In contrast, the SAT still has a “guessing penalty” and implemented its “score choice” this year. In addition, the ACT content better reflects high school classroom work and includes subjects such as science, not covered in the SAT. Last but not least, the writing section is optional in the ACT in contrast to the mandatory writing section in the SAT. It’s not surprising therefore that all colleges that still require applicants to submit standardized test scores now accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT.  This is good news for students who now have two equal choices in college admissions exams. But, according to Schaeffer, it’s even better news that more and more universities are dropping admissions exam requirements altogether. These so-called test-optional policies, he says, offer students the best alternative of all.

New SAT Scores Reflect Growing Disparities

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

New figures released this week by the College Board  showed that overall SAT scores remained essentially unchanged from last year. But a closer look reveals growing racial, ethnic and income gaps that have some observers worried. 
After gaining 13 points this year across all three parts of the SAT, Asian Americans now outscore African Americans by 163 points on math, 90 points on reading and 106 points on writing, according to Inside Higher Education. In addition, the 2010 scores showed a correlation between SAT scores and family income. Simply put, those with higher family incomes scored higher on all three parts of the SAT than their lower-income counterparts. Higher levels of parental education also were associated with higher scores.
The growing disparities did not go unnoticed by critics of standardized testing. FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, released a statement saying that the test scores show education reform is not leading to more equity as proponents claim. “Fortunately, more and more colleges have recognized the folly of fixating on the narrow, often biased, information provided by standardized tests and moved toward test-optional admissions,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test.
FairTest, which maintains a database of test-optional schools, says the number of colleges and universities that make SAT or ACT scores optional for applicants now stands at more than 840.

Salve Regina University Goes Test-Optional

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Salve ReginaSalve Regina, a Catholic liberal arts university in Rhode Island, is the latest to announce it is making SAT and ACT standardized test scores optional for most students applying for admission. The university announced its decision, which is effective immediately, as it was welcoming the largest freshman class in its history.

 Salve Regina joins more than 800 colleges and universities that also have gone test-optional in recent years. The decision to become test optional is the result of a long process of research and discussion,” Laura McPhie Oliveira, vice president for enrollment said in a statement. “Our research shows that the best predictor of academic success at Salve Regina is strong performance in a rigorous college preparatory program. The goal is to stay true to the inclusive spirit of our mission and focus on what really matters, which is a student’s ability to succeed and thrive in our community.”

 The statement pointed out that there is increasing concern that standardized test scores are not good predictors of academic success because they can be influenced by environmental, cultural and economic factors. By adopting the new policy, Salve Regina hopes to enhance its commitment to a high-performing and diverse student body.

“Our staff will continue to review applications as thoroughly as we have done in the past,” said Colleen Emerson, dean of undergraduate admissions. “The most important part of our application review process has always been and will continue to be a student’s day-to-day performance in a strong curriculum. Our best applicants have always been those who have challenged themselves to go beyond the minimum requirements.”

College Applications: More Isn't Better

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

While a whole slew of new college freshmen are headed off to classes this week, an anxious group of high school students is about to begin the often arduous process of applying to college. For nearly a quarter of those seniors, the process will involve submitting seven or more applications, according to survey data from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.  In fact, the percentage of students submitting seven or more applications has risen to 22 percent from nine percent since 1990. While submitting many applications might seem like a good way to hedge your bets, it also can bring a lot of angst.

Come spring, the applicants will be facing one of two scenarios, says Scott Anderson, director of outreach for the Common Application and chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee. Either they will receive more rejection letters, which can be demoralizing, or they will have more acceptance letters, making the final choice even more difficult. “It would be much easier to narrow that decision now, rather than in April when you’ve got one month to evaluate financial aid packages, go back and revisit colleges, make all of these decisions at a very, very busy time of year,” Anderson told the NACAC’s Admitted blog.

That’s why Anderson suggests conducting extensive research on each college that might interest you, and keeping the list of applications to no more than eight. Some counselors even recommend whittling the list down to five — one “reach” school, one safety school, and three target schools.

With thousands of degree-granting colleges in the United States, most applicants are likely to get accepted to a very good school. “The Chicken Little, sky-is-falling-scenario does not apply to most students, and they need to know that, and feel good about the many, many options that they have, “ Anderson says. “I would advise all students, regardless of what application tool they are using, to be thoughtful about where they’re applying and make sure that every school on their list is there for a reason.”