By Robin Lee Hughes
Many higher educational institutions no longer rely exclusively on standardized tests as a primary indicator of future academic success. However, the courts continue to be bombarded by numerous allegations of rampant reverse discrimination, and public outrage that stems from students’ performances on standardized tests. In light of the insurmountable testimony from students and subsequently courts that profess that such policies undercut the university’s traditional colorblind, equal opportunity approach to admissions, educational affirmative action policies have come under considerable attack. And that approach, inevitably entails the overwhelming use of standardized scores as an indicator of subsequent success and admission.
Meanwhile, there has been no significant testimony to prove that the ATs (SAT, MCAT, LSAT) and GREs accurately predict academic success. In other words, a 1400 on the SAT still does not assure us of a rocket scientist. William Bowen and Derek Bok, in “The Shape of the River,” and researchers from the social, political and other sciences have unequivocally shown that exclusive use of standardized test scores are poor predictors of school success. In fact, academicians routinely disagree on the predictive nature of the SATs—the end result, multiple interpretations and somewhat murky conclusions and possibilities. Many believe that the SAT under-predicts the potential collegiate scholastic achievement for African-Americans and others, although few present supportive evidence to the contrary. In contrast, SATs are thought to be better predictors for Anglo academic achievement, and then, they still remain elusive in their predictive capabilities. Noted critic of affirmative action, Roger Clegg, in many of his articles appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, claims that the ATs are valid cognitive test for everyone. On the other hand, Critical Theorists such as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in “Critical Race Theory” argue that, in fact, they provide little predictive value at all.
These conclusions should neither be considered good nor bad — just research that supports either argument. But, most importantly, all of the arguments support the fact that exclusive use of the ATs may be poor predictors of academic achievement—for everyone. Moreover, these seemingly complex admissions computations (which are not really that complex, they are typically basic mathematical manipulations of GPA, class rank, and test scores that assume students are disconnected variables, and only describe tangible variables –like grades) force us to be believe that intellect can be easily measured and predicted—or so one would be led to believe.
It could be argued that academic predictions and predictors may glean something relevant from the physicists. They know all too well how difficult it is to predict an event (Egon Guba and Yvonna Lincoln used this same argument years ago. See Naturalistic Inquiry, 1985). When Newtonian physics didn’t quite cut it, Schrödinger used something called quantum mechanics to calculate the probability of finding ONE electron in an atomic orbital. In fact, those equations require Hamiltonian operators to explain just where an electron is located at any given time. In fact, many physicists use supercomputers to do the calculations, and they still call it an estimate of where that ONE electron is located.
In fact, it is quite evident that, one should require more than algebra to describe human interaction, psychology, physiology, sociology and a host of other ologies. Especially, since none of us can seem to even predict something as simple as what college kids will wear to class from year to year. I would contend that these “prediction” equations would have some use, if you could supply… oh, about 1600 (1 for each of the AT points) variables to describe the complexity of each student—perhaps, and we would certainly need a supercomputer to derive the computation. For instance, a traumatic event, listening to music , walking early, playing some musical instrument, and parental education could all be weighted and assigned some human function (like the wave functions in quantum mechanics); or, perhaps we could consider shoe size. I would argue shoe size may be most cost effective. Accordingly, institutions of higher education may require a foot imprint on the application for the sake of authenticity. It would be much simpler. Ludicrous, perhaps, but do remember many current equations attempt to predict academic success by mathematically manipulating a few variables with a heavy emphasis on the power of a standardized score in an algebraic equation (not a differential equation, which would be more accurate given the assumption that one can predict the future).
The question then becomes, why is there an emphasis on prediction equations ? I have two hypotheses: First, there is the growing rhetoric and continuing assumption that standardized tests constitute an egalitarian system of selection (an oxymoron in and of itself) of students to higher education. However, they are routinely used throughout students’ educational careers to sort and select, i.e. by tracking, thusly perpetuating a system of inequality as early as kindergarten, and often times well before. Secondly, because, quite frankly, it’s efficient and cost effective. I submit as an example, if university X receives 16,000 applications for 7,300 freshmen spots, and the university has less than 10 admissions readers, it’s just easier to ‘chuck’ the applications with low test scores or test-GPA combinations (the algebraic equation).
So what should institutions of higher education do? What should we be doing? Many people, including myself would like to see a portfolio and interview process put forth into policy and action. Schools like Sara Lawrence College dropped the SAT altogether. Sara Lawrence College administrators describe studying for the SAT as an unhealthy obsession in an already stressful time. So instead, people who are interested in attending Sara Lawrence are expected to show academic success as reflected by course rigor and grades, teacher recommendations, and their ability to write.
Critics of this system argue that it is time consuming, and expensive to thoughtfully read and critically analyze this sort of thick descriptive data. But, is this not one of the main reasons why many choose a profession in higher education—research, rigor? Unfortunately, still others argue that it is a waste of time to interview potential candidates or look at portfolio information when we have bills to pay and no time to waste? Plus, we already have that prediction equation. Simply put, it makes good institutional economical sense to use numeric descriptors— that prediction equation. And, quite frankly many people honestly believe that they are some type of academic crystal ball that accurately predicts who will succeed and who will not. So, for now, I guess higher education will continue with this sort of skewed psychic hotline approach to admissions, where shoe size might one day become a variable for predicting academic success.
Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the school of education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.