Aug 312006
 
Authors: ALEX CLARK Daily Nebraskan U. Nebraska

(U-WIRE) LINCOLN, Neb. – When I read last week about the changes in national average SAT and ACT scores for 2006 compared to previous years, I began thinking again about how the American education system’s emphasis on these sorts of scores is thoroughly rotten.

Apparently, national ACT averages have gone up from 20.9 to 21.1, which means high school seniors are getting smarter. Meanwhile, average SAT critical reading scores have dropped from 508 to 503and the math mean has dropped from 520 to 518, which means high school seniors are getting dumber.

Are you skeptical of the importance of these changes in light of their contradictory messages? Do you doubt the ability of standardized tests to say anything important and accurate about incoming freshmen’s academic abilities and value to a university?

If yes, I’d like to invite you to join me in making a one-handed “wanking” gesture to express disapproval of the cult of standardized testing’s national self-aggrandizement.

The makers of the SAT have attributed the national drop in average SAT scores to the fact that fewer people retook the test this past year, and, typically, students’ scores increase a little on subsequent retestings. The organization says it has nothing to do with the fact that the new writing section has stretched out the duration of the test by 25 percent.

For the record, Nebraska’s average ACT scores have climbed from 21.8 to 21.9. The Cornhusker State’s SAT reading and math scores jumped 2 and 4 points, respectively.

Wow, is your hand getting tired, too?

A lot of people in higher education already know to take standardized test scores with a huge grain of salt.

In a story published in the Daily Nebraskan on March 31 concerning 4,000 incorrectly low-scored SAT tests, Craig Munier, the director of the Scholarship and Financial Aid Office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, pointed out class rank is a much better indicator of ability than test scores. He said that his office shies away from focusing too much on test scores.

More famous is the 2001 criticism of standardized testing by University of California President Richard C. Atkinson.

His speech was a key part of the reason why the SAT and ACT both now include writing sections.

In his speech entitled “Standardized Tests and Access to American Universities,” Atkinson advocated abandoning the SAT I as a requirement of admission to the UC system and a shift away from formulaic admission procedures with heavy emphasis on test scores.

He instead favors entrance tests that demonstrate students’ “mastery of specific subject areas.”

This is a superb goal and part of the reason why I see the ACT rather than the SAT as the lesser of two evils. At least when I took them, the ACT seemed less a test of “cleverness” and more a test of skills you should learn in high school.

And yet, tests of mastery rather than “aptitude” are still pretty onerous without something to give admissions staff a sense of a student’s circumstances and character.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I applied to UNL four years ago, I guess I mailed the university proof of the right magic numbers to get it to toss a little scholarship money my way.

But what the magic numbers didn’t show is that though I’m kind of “clever,” I’m a pretty awful student. I have little self-discipline, a very short attention span and poor study skills. When I have coursework, I always wait until the last possible moment to complete it, if I complete it at all. Self-motivation is not my strong point.

So a lot of what should never have been offered to me in the first place during my freshman year was yanked away abruptly when my grades proved to be mediocre.

Meanwhile, I know lots of highly organized, high-performing, very deserving classmates who never even got the scholarship opportunities I wasted because they’re bad at math.

Applying to be an undergraduate student at a university should be more like applying for a job. It should revolve around cover sheets, resum/s, personal statements, letters of recommendation and interviews.

Writing a novel just for fun, speaking four languages, building robots in your garage or volunteering for hundreds of hours on political campaigns should count more than a 36 or a 1600.

There isn’t a field on UNL’s application for undergraduate admission where you can write things like that, though there is space to indicate three dates of both SAT and ACT testing. A note above these blanks warns, “The writing portion of both the SAT and ACT is not used for admission purposes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

There is an invitation near the end to send a resum/, but the application says this is only for leadership-based scholarships such as the Chancellor’s Leadership Scholarship and the Pepsi Service scholarship, each good for $1000 your freshman year only.

These are piddly compared to scholarships like the Regent’s Scholarship, Nebraska Top Scholars and David Distinguished Scholarship. These are based solely on magic numbers and much more valuable.

Shifting emphases in admissions and scholarship would require overcoming the resistance of the cult of standardized testing as well as putting huge burdens on admissions offices that are worked far beyond their capacity. It takes more time to read essays than to sort a column of ACT scores in a spreadsheet by descending order.

But America deserves the fairest, best educational system possible.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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