Colleges Want Students with Character, But Can’t Measure It

  • 2015-12-15
  • Nautilus

Jon Boeckenstedt devours data. As DePaul University’s associate vice president for enrollment management, he studies how the institution’s 16,000 undergraduates are doing, trying to forecast their performance. Many in his position would turn to standardized tests like the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and the ACT (American College Testing). But Boeckenstedt believes the tests carry too much weight in college admissions. “We know there are students for whom the tests don’t represent their true ability,” he says. Today more than 800 four-year colleges and universities in the United States no longer require standardized tests as part of their admissions process—that’s about 20 percent of the total. In 2011, DePaul became the largest private nonprofit among these.

The flaws in standardized testing are well-documented at this point. They punish disadvantaged students and minorities, entrench class lines, and their predictive powers only forecast a student’s progress as far as the first semester of their freshman year. The University of California, Berkeley1 economist Jesse M. Rothstein has found that the combination of a student’s high school grades and demographic information predicted first-year grades in college about as well as her high school grades and SAT scores do. Based on his experience evaluating undergraduate performance, Boeckenstedt agrees. “It’s double counting,” he says.

As colleges de-emphasize tests scores for applicants, they are turning to research showing that a student’s potential relies on more than cognition. Traits such as optimism, curiosity, resilience, and “grit” may actually play a stronger role in determining a student’s long-term success.

In the face of a growing agreement that these so-called “soft skills” are important is a question that remains stubbornly unanswered: How can they be measured consistently and fairly? Boeckenstedt has often heard admissions officers say, “you can’t measure heart.” The expression rings true. But is it?

In theory, at least, standardized testing was supposed to deliver a class-neutral measure of a student’s innate ability. Colleges could use them as an apples-to-apples selection aid, putting a student from a small private school in Manhattan N.Y. on the same playing field as a student from a large public school in Manhattan, Kan. The first SAT was administered in 1926, and colleges rapidly adopted it and other standardized tests as a way to assess a large number of applicants efficiently.

But is clear now that most standardized tests used today are far from class-neutral. Even as the College Board announced in March 2014 that it will overhaul the SAT by making the essay optional, cutting obscure vocabulary words, and sharpening the focus of the math section, skepticism abounds. The SAT has undergone many changes before (the much-maligned analogies section was retired in 2005), but SAT scores have continued to reflect socioeconomic disparities.

The economists Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl have found that disadvantaged students (who are disproportionately black and low-income, with parents who dropped out of high school) tend to score 784 points lower on the SAT’s math and verbal sections combined than more affluent students do. If the SAT were a 100-yard dash, they write, disadvantaged students start “65 yards behind.” In addition, colleges began to question whether pure brainpower was all they wanted. Ivy League schools began moving away from purely test-driven admissions as early as the 1920s through the use of in-person interviews (though this may have been motivated as much by racial bias as anything else).