Down here in Eduflack’s temporary offices in Central America (long story, but the good news is that it looks like baby Eduflackette, who turned one on Saturday, should be coming home to the DC area for good before the end of the year), my eye was caught by a newsbrief in the NYTimes Digest (even I’m not willing to pay $8 for the full NYT down here) about the latest commission report on college admissions.
Headed By Harvard University Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, the latest report recommends that colleges and universities reduce their dependence on SAT and ACT scores when it comes to admitting new students. Instead, the commission is recommending specific admission exams more closely tied to high school curriculum and student achievement.
For years now, we have seen leading national colleges and universities back off of SAT and ACT scores as requirements for admission. Researchers have claimed that high school grades, and not standardized admission scores, are the true measure of student success in the postsecondary classroom. And still more see the tests — particularly the SAT — as yet another example of the high stakes testing that has permeated P-16 education today.
At the very heart of Fitzsimmons’ report, though, I can’t help but think we are simply rearranging some of the deck chairs for postsecondary admittance. After all, how different do we expect an “admissions exam” to be from the SAT or ACT. All will serve as standardized tests. All will measure students on a common level of English, math (and hopefully science and social studies, and maybe even foreign language) abilities. All will be used to determine the cutoff line, knowing that a score of X gets you in, a score of Y puts you on the border line, and a score of Z puts you in the also rans.
The real issue is how one goes about constructing the admission exam. By early reports, the Fitzsimmons commission is proposing an admissions exam based on high school curriculum. A noble idea, yes. But is it worth the paper it would be printed on (or the computer it would be coded on?) Can national college admissions exams really be worth anything until we have national standards on which high school curriculum is based?
The answer, as we all know, is of course not. College entry exams are intended to demonstrate that entering students have the skills and abilities to do basic postsecondary education work. At a time when nearly half of all college-going students are forced to take remedial reading or math courses, such a determination has never been more important. Are our high schools turning out students capable of college-level work? Are our kids ready for postsecondary education? And if not, what is it our secondary schools should be doing to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities in the P-16 education continuum?
It all brings us back to the simple concept of national education standards. A rising senior B student in Alabama should have the same skills, abilities, and access to information as a B student in Connecticut, or one in Wisconsin, or one in Oregon or Nevada. Algebra II should mean the same thing, no matter what state or what school district is taking it. And a high school diploma should come with a guarantee of a basic knowledge and ability in English, math, and science. As a nation, we should have common goals. As a national education system, we should have common expectations from all of our students, regardless of location or socioeconomic status.
Yes, our goal should be getting a greater number of diverse students into postsecondary education. We need to increase the number of first-generation students entering the halls of higher education. We need to promote the notion that postsecondary education is a requirement for success in today’s ever-evolving economy.
A college admissions test simply doesn’t get us there, and in today’s environment, too many colleges may be required to develop dozens of such tests to reflect the vast differences in standards and performances across our 50 states. If college admissions deans really want to make a difference, they should be out there advocating for national K-12 standards. They should be demanding that every applicant be measured on the same scale. They should require that a high school education — rural, suburban, or urban; northeast, south, midwest, or southwest — provides the same levels of skill, preparation, and knowledge. They should require national standards.