The ACT and SATs are not often remembered fondly. In fact, for most students, the pressure of standardized testing was immense: the largest deciding factor determining whether one would be accepted into college. Yet, increasing trends in certain colleges’ admissions are moving away from looking at standardized testing – some even provide “Test Optional” in their admissions process. Carleton, however, still requires test scores.
“The SAT allows us to level the playing field when what students have been exposed to is not equal,” explains Paul Thiboutot, Dean of Admissions.
He explained that, as a standalone measure, a student’s SAT scores (or ACT) are not accurate in indicating a student’s college readiness. But in conjunction with other things such as GPA, class rank, and an internal rating system, scores become a useful tool. Additionally, Carleton does not practice a policy of only looking at students with scores above a certain number.
Thiboutot has “a twenty-five year old, but still true” example of why standardized testing is important.
Carleton was looking at an applicant from a small, rural high school in Northern Minnesota called Perley, he explains. The student was ranked first in her class, but only had on her transcript “Senior Math,” “Senior English,” etc. In comparison to a student from the suburban Edina High School who had AP and accelerated enriched courses on her transcript, she would appear less prepared for the rigors of college work. However, because the Perley student had a very good score, they were able to consider her equally qualified academically as the Edina student.
But when discussing the ways in which the SAT can level the playing field for students who come from very different backgrounds, it is also crucial to think about the ways in which it disadvantages students.
Katie Ciaglo ’17 spent fall term discussing standardized testing in her A&I.
“We talked a lot about how fair or unfair it is to use as an indication and looked at evidence that shows it is biased to more privileged kids. The SAT is the kind of test where it is shown that the more access you have to it, the better you will do. Historically, underprivileged children don’t have access to test preparation.”
Thiboutot insists Carleton is sensitive to biases. He commented, “I wish there weren’t such biases, but if you know there are such biases and you see a low income, first generation student from a non-urban, non-suburban high school that does well on the SAT, then, wow, it’s all to their credit. We can read with sensitivity knowing that, and if a school doesn’t do that then they are using the SAT wrong.”
But Ciaglo is uncertain whether looking at SAT scores with biases in mind defeats the purpose of having the scores in the first place, since the SAT claims to be a tool for equal comparison. She says, it seems as if “doing this undermines the validity of why they are using the SAT in the first place. I wonder if, instead, there are better ways to judge applicants that don’t require all of this time put into standardized testing.”
Bowdoin College, another one of Carleton’s peer institutions, has been Test Optional since 1969. 20% of applicants do not submit any standardized testing scores. Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Scott A. Meiklejohn, responded via email to questions about their policy.
“[Test optional] allows for applicants to decide for themselves whether or not their tests results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential. Our goal is to admit students who will thrive at Bowdoin, and testing is not essential to that objective. However, we respect that other colleges have made other decisions.”
In response to the question of whether a Test Optional policy was in Carleton’s future, Thiboutot was uncertain. “There still seems to be value in the SAT, so long as we are not giving it ultimate weight.”
However he was aware of the changes that are planned for the 2016 SAT. These changes will aim to realign the test so that it is more reflective of a high school curriculum, and thus hopefully, eliminate some biases. Specific amendments will include a longer, but also optional, writing section, vocabulary that is commonly used in college courses (as opposed to the current obscure smattering), and math that is more focused on linear equations, functions, and proportional thinking.
Thiboutot added, “If the redesigned SAT doesn’t seem helpful, maybe—but I don’t know for sure—we will reevaluate our policy for using the SAT. However, my basic sense is that the changes proposed seem reasonable and could be a positive long-term thing.”