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Standardized Testing: Help or Hindrance? What you need to know about changes to college admissions testing.

Beginning this winter, the two major testing programs utilized in college admissions, the SAT and the ACT, will undergo significant revisions. Families are perplexed by these changes, and how to plan their testing strategy to meet the requirements of colleges in which they are interested. They are very concerned about what those requirements are. IHEs should take this opportunity to get to know the new tests, to help enrollment personnel to understand them so that they can better assist applicants, and to consider modifying their institutional test requirements in response to recent research and examples established by a number of selective colleges and universities.

Change is nothing new to the standardized testing landscape, but the upcoming shifts are the most significant in this generation, and are arguably more important than the "recentering" of the SAT in 1995. More students are college bound than ever before in America, and more are taking the SAT, the ACT, or both in order to qualify for admission. About 1.4 million students take the SAT, and 1.2 million the ACT, out of an annual high school graduating class of over 3 million nationally. The SAT is undergoing the bigger changes of the two major tests. Long more of a "reasoning" than a substantive, curriculum-based test, which was the ACT's identity, the SAT will become more like the ACT and more focused on core elements of a stronger college preparatory high school program. The ACT will add an optional Writing section, which many selective public and private IHEs will make mandatory. The New SAT will also add a Writing section, which in this case will not be optional. The old Verbal section of the SAT I will be renamed Critical Reading. The Math section will drop quantitative comparisons and add content from third-year high school math, or Algebra II. The Critical Reading section will eliminate analogy questions and substitute short reading passages. The Writing section will look like the current SAT II Writing Subject Test, containing multiple choice questions on grammar and usage as well as a student essay written in response to a prompt.

New emphasis on writing skills may mean significant changes in how readers evaluate student files.

In short, the New SAT, and the ACT with Writing, will put more emphasis on students' writing and reading skills. The old "perfect 1600" SAT I score will become the "perfect 2400" and admissions officers will have the opportunity to view scanned versions of student essays from the Writing section. Thus, they will be able to compare timed, monitored student essay responses, in predictably terrible handwriting, with more polished essays from admission applications. This is one of the most underreported changes associated with the new test, and could result in significant changes in the way admissions readers evaluate student files, and the ways in which students prepare them. The SAT II Writing Subject Test will be discontinued after January. The first New SAT will be administered in March, 2005, the first ACT with Writing in February.

The simplest changes are those related to how many SAT II Subject Tests more selective colleges will require in addition to the SAT or ACT. The College Board is maintaining a list of different colleges' entrance requirements for the high school class of 2006 as they are announced (see Resources), which will give you an idea of what your peers are planning. In most cases, highly selective schools that currently require three SAT II Subject Tests, usually including the Writing, will now require two Subject Tests in addition to the New SAT or ACT with Writing. Some are continuing to require three Subject Tests, or only the ACT with Writing.

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing maintains a list of public and private IHEs that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission, or have more flexible policies that de-emphasize the use of the tests in the admission process. Look for this list to be updated, and examine colleges' web sites to explore what some institutions have already been doing. Some notable examples of alternative approaches to the use of standardized tests in admissions include:

Bowdoin College and Bates College in Maine, neither of which requires any standardized tests for admission. These highly selective private colleges have eliminated the testing requirement for a long time and have had strong results in doing so. According to a study conducted of Bates' 20-year optional SAT program, students who did and did not submit SATs had similar levels of academic performance and graduation rates. The college reported a larger and more diverse applicant pool as a result of its policy ("Bates Calls Its SAT-Optional Policy a Boon," Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/15/04).

Hamilton College (N.Y.), which maintains very flexible standardized testing requirements. For entry in 2005, students must submit either the SAT, the ACT, three SAT II Subjects (Writing, a quantitative test, and one other), three Advanced Placement (AP) tests (an English, a quantitative, and one other), or any combination of the above (to include one verbal/English, one quantitative, and one other). Quantitative tests can include math, chemistry, physics, computer science, or economics. For 2006 entry, Hamilton will require the ACT or three tests (SAT II, New SAT, ACT, AP, International Baccalaureate, TOEFL) in different areas, including an English/Writing/Reading, a quantitative, and one other.

Connecticut College, which will require for 2006 entry either the ACT (Writing not necessary), or any two SAT II Subjects.

Union College (N.Y.), which has required either the SAT, the ACT, or three SAT IIs, one of which must be the writing. Plans for 2006 are unclear.

Pitzer College (Calif.), which is conducting a three year trial of a new standardized testing policy. If students graduate in the top ten percent of their high school class, or maintain a 3.5 unweighted academic GPA or higher, they are exempted from any testing requirements. If they do not, they may submit either the ACT, the SAT, two SAT II Subjects (currently Writing and a math), two AP scores of 4 or 5 (one in English, and one in math or natural science), two International Baccalaureate exams (English and math), or one 11th or 12th grade analytical writing sample with a grade and comments and one graded math exam.

Other colleges with some form of optional standardized test or SAT I (New SAT) requirements include Hartwick (N.Y.), Middlebury (Vt.), and Franklin and Marshall, Susquehanna, and Muhlenberg in Pennsylvania. While most higher profile selective institutions with alternative testing requirements are smaller, private liberal arts colleges, some larger and public institutions, such as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Montana, Missoula, also do not make the SAT or ACT mandatory. Many sectarian, proprietary, or less selective public and private IHEs also are experimenting with different approaches to entrance requirements.

If you plan to continue requiring the SAT or ACT, you need to clarify your policies and the changes in the testing for families looking at your school. Not only can you help families understand what it takes to gain admission to your institution by stating your admissions requirements and options clearly on your admissions web site, but you can help them understand the changes in the SAT and ACT so that they can better prepare for them. Coaches, faculty, and other institutional representatives who intersect with prospective students should become versed in the content and interpretation of the new testing formats. You will earn friends among families and guidance counselors by helping to spread the message about early preparation, focus on reading and writing skills, and emphasis on maintaining a challenging four-year college prep curriculum, including math through Algebra II at a minimum and at least one course on expository and analytical writing. To increase your pool of qualified and interested applicants, you need to establish a long-term relationship with parents and students, and help the latter meet the requirements you have in place.

Clarify your policies and the changes in testing for families looking at your school.

Given the shifting landscape and the many available models for more flexible use of standardized tests in the admissions process, you might consider working with your admissions, enrollment management, financial aid, public relations, and academic life personnel to assess the desirability of a new standardized testing policy. You might pilot an optional testing program for a few years, or give students the option to submit subject-based tests, which are more content driven, in place of the New SAT or ACT. These would include SAT II, AP, and IB tests like those mentioned above. We expect that if you do follow one of the models available, you would garner positive media attention, and, in time, attract a larger and more diverse applicant pool in many respects. Information sharing with some of the colleges like Bates, Bowdoin, and Middlebury, which have had long-established test optional programs could provide you with valuable data and recommendations prior to initiating any change.

Those IHEs that enroll significant numbers of transfer students based on GPA might consider a longitudinal study of this cohort's performance and graduation rate. It is quite possible that criteria other than standardized testing data will reveal themselves as positive predictors that could be applied to first-year admissions decisions. There are other progressive forms of student assessment being developed and studied which we encourage you to become aware of and to consider as possible models for your institution. We have no doubt, given our day-to-day work with college-bound families, that standardized testing remains one of the most stressful, frustrating, limiting, and controversial aspects of the college planning and admissions process. With testing removed from the equation, many students become better able to focus on their classroom work, extracurricular pursuits, and the elements of particular colleges that will make these institutions a good match for students' personal strengths.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of the Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.


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