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The Landscape of College Testing

This is a transcription of a recent podcast episode where we sit down with Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, to discuss the history of standardized testing, present circumstances, and where testing fits into the future of college admission. 

Listen to the podcast "The Landscape of College Testing with Peter Van Buskirk" Here


ERIN: College entrance testing has been in the news a lot lately. It would appear that there are major changes taking place with regard to the role of testing in the admission process. Before we get into those changes, Peter what can you tell us about how we got to this place.


PETER: College entrance testing started over 100 years ago, actually would have been literally about 1900 when it seemed like some leading institutions were looking for a metric to use that would enable them to assess whether students across different high school backgrounds would be prepared for college at their particular schools. And over time there were different types of entrance examinations ranging from IQ tests that the army had developed for officer placement of training – that that was adapted for college placement – and then the test that became the SAT was actually used initially...I guess that this is in the 1940s...as a scholarship examination at institutions for years…but the concept of the SAT roughly as we know it now really began to emerge in the 1950s, 1960s as a test that was designed to help college admission officers predict the success of students in the first year of college.

So I mentioned this to point out that college entrance testing overtime has had an evolving look as the rubric has changed to meet the times and now it's not an intelligence test now it's not a subject test right now but it's designed as a reasoning and logic test help colleges understand where students are in their readiness for college.


ERIN: So, given all the context that you just provided, what exactly is the current role of testing in the admission process today?


PETER: Well today, testing really has a primary function as helping admission officers as one of the variables that is provided on behalf of a student, but helping admission officers to understand the potential for students to do the work academically in the first year of college and that's really it. It's not predicting who's going to graduate from college, it's not predicting what your GPA is going to be in college, but is simply providing some metric that helps give admission officers more confidence in in looking at candidates to make the decision that yes the student can do the work.

Now, at some institutions, the role of testing has become a little more expanded because of the volume of candidates. State universities, for example, that have great number of candidates and are more objective in their selection process will use a very basic formula that involves a test result and maybe a GPA to determine who's going to make an initial cut in the selection process. Or similarly, some of the Uber selective institutions will do the same thing with their indices to determine which of the candidates will move to the next round of consideration but the basic role of the test is to help us understand whether students can do the job in college when they get into the classroom.


ERIN: So it sounds like for a very long time that testing has been the bedrock of the college admission process, so that being said why does it seem that so many colleges are making the submission of tests optional?


PETER: Well it's a good question Erin, because one of the things that we've discovered overtime is that despite the – if you will – the pure intent of the test, there have been inherent biases in the test of gender biases, racial biases, in the way the questions that are formed that they have a bearing on who will do well or who will not do as well as the performance on the test. So that's one of the reasons why there's constant evaluation among the test makers as to how the test is constructed, the content that's in the test, etc.

In the 1980s some schools began to take a step back and say, hey do we really need the test, and at that time they were doing things with validity studies to try to predict the role of testing and in determining whether students can be successful and they were starting to ask questions about you know how important is this test but as early as the 1980s as schools like Bates College up in Maine decided that maybe they didn't really need testing, they could make good decisions about whom to admit without having students submit to a standardized test so initially they experimented with an admission process absent any test results and found that indeed they could move forward with without the testing and make good decisions.

So, the birth of test option really grew out of that time period with Bates and Bowdoin, and some other schools in the Northeast trying to see whether they could function well in testless environment. I was at Franklin & Marshall College in 1989 when we decided to try the test option and frankly I would just say that the experience as an admission officer at that time with the test optional environment was liberating. It was actually a lot of fun to be able to look at candidates without having to imagine how their test results would have an impact on the profile of information we provided to the public. We could look at young people, not numbers, and then really that was that was quite meaningful for us and and that was almost 40 years ago and that test option is still in place in Franklin & Marshall.


ERIN: So, wasn’t it risky to drop the submission of tests when they were designed to predict success?


PETER: Well that's a good observation, and I know that when we had that debate on our campus that the faculty were the ones that really researched the possibility of going test optional and the faculty were initially quite reluctant to drop a test – something that had been part of the decision making rubric of the institution for many years – and then finally when the conversation provided data and analysis that said, you know what, you can do a good job without the test, some of the faculty started to catcall the process and say you know why don't you just go ahead and make it completely optional. See at that time, we were going to make the test optional for students in the top 10% of the class rather than making it optional for all students. Once the faculty realized that it was really possible to make good decisions about whom to admit without the test, they wanted to embrace it even further, but taking that initial step away from the security blanket of the test was a difficult and awkward step for many institutions and I know that we felt that awkwardness until we actually were immersed in the process without tests and it was actually working well for us and it was a lot of fun.


ERIN: Are you surprised at all that so many colleges have become test optional over the last year?


PETER: Well, the last year has really been a different sort of circumstance and before I respond specifically to that, let me say that by January of 2020, this is pre-COVID, there were at least 1000 colleges and universities around the country that were test optional in some way. So the movement toward test option has been rather substantial and when you consider that there are roughly 3000 of the traditional bricks and mortar colleges and universities around the country, a third of them now fully a third prior to COVID had engaged in some degree of test option, test blind activity.

With COVID however, many institutions including the very selective institutions that had relied on testing as part of the filtering mechanism, if you will, the index that they would use to determine who would make the first the second cut etc, in their selection process, many of those institutions felt that it was not fair to students to insist that they submit credentials for which they couldn't have access. In other words, there are a lot of kids who were preparing to apply for admission in the last year who simply couldn't get to test centers and normally a student might have taken an SAT or an ACT two or three times during the course of getting ready for the college application will now they might have one of the test if that and so institutions were saying what we need to do is take a step back from the test and not penalize students for not being able to take the test let's make the test optional for this year on an experimental basis. So that number of test optional schools grew from 1012 months ago to 1600 now so fully half of the college universities including most of the very highly selective institutions are in at least an experimental mode with test option this year.


ERIN: And how do you think the test option is affecting the credential review process at those highly selective institutions?


PETER: That's a really good question this is certainly a challenge and I think that there's an unexpected consequences of that decision by some of say Ivy League institutions and other very highly selective institutions to go test optional. Now there are a lot of students who may not have applied because they knew that their scores were not in a range for those institutions were saying oh what the heck I'm going to give it a shot and many of those places – places that we're already seeing and admit rate of 1 out of 15 one out of 20 have increases in applications of 40 to 50% this year – so it's just getting absolutely insane at those schools and I mentioned that because you ask how does that affect the decision making process...well the sheer volume of candidates this year is just overwhelming it’s a big tsunami that's overwhelming many institutions that said they are committed to making decisions without test results, which means that they have to change the way they look at the candidate and rather than relying on objective data for making some preliminary cuts, they're looking more at the subjective information.

They’ll always rely first on the academic record. They’ll always rely first on the rigor of the program a student who's been taking through high school through the senior year of high school and the performance of the student in that that program and so to the extent that students do well, but not extremely well, maybe at an Ivy League school that's the point of discrimination...but the academic record is the 1st place...but now, there's much more, sensitivity let's say, to the subjective elements of that application...and then I would enter this thought for anyone who's listening: those schools that are extremely selective are trying to discern the sense of purpose that a student brings into the process...in other words, are you applying to our school simply because we are who we are and you want to see if you can get in or because you have an understanding of what you want to accomplish and you have found in our program something that's really going to meet your needs so the students ability to express that purpose improve the synergy between the student and the institution how is something that's coming into play more and more at those schools as well.


ERIN: And to add even more change to upcoming application cycles, it seems that the educational testing service is removing some other tools that have been used in selective admission. What is behind the decision to drop the offering of SAT subject tests?


PETER: The SAT subject tests have been around for a long time, probably I'm going to say 50 to 60 years, I think many parents would recognize them not as subject test but achievement tests. Many of the tests have been used overtime by schools that are trying to actively created another filter on determining the readiness of students to perform in highly specialized environments or highly competitive environments, but increasingly selective institutions have backed off of insisting the students take the subject tests simply to take them as another credential and even the schools that have the more sophisticated specialized programs like engineering or even in the arts for example where or languages where the subject tests can provide particular insight into a student’s level of proficiency - there's less reliance on the subject tests there as well - so bottom line is it's a business move the educational testing services finding that there's just not enough demand for the use of the subject tests and they're expensive to develop expensive to administer and they're just saying hey you know if these tests aren't being used very widely, why do we need to bother.


ERIN: And what of the decision to drop the optional essay, as well?


PETER: Similar. The essay was introduced into the SAT about 10 years ago. It was initially an optional part of the SAT experience and then became a mandatory part, but again what happened with the essay couple of things. One, the segment itself, test segment itself was difficult to put together so that it would really glean from the student some sense of the students communication skills - in other words what we found is that a lot of students were trying to figure out, if you will, the formula for scoring well on that test and would respond to essay prompts more to beat the formula than to write anything thoughtful are there stories of students who wrote gibberish basically in their essays but still scored well because of the form in which they presented their gibberish and admission officers just found that to be not terribly helpful at all so the essay portion of the SAT and it was a stressful thing for students it was something else that they tried to do the prep for it and be ready and frankly again they took in my opinion a wrong turn in terms of that preparation so that again they were they were focusing more on the presentation of technical skills rather than presentation of thoughtful analysis as a result colleges just decided on increasingly that it was not the optional essay now optional was no longer a terribly useful part of the selection process


ERIN: Well, we've touched on the history of testing and the present state of testing as it relates to college admission, but I'm curious to get your thoughts on the future of testing in college admission.


PETER: Well, I think there are some who would see that these developments the test option, the dropping of these subject tests, dropping of the optional essay, are sort of ringing the death bell of testing in terms of a college entrance examination process. I don't know we could go quite that far right now but it's clearly there's a sea change here taking place and I think that the next 12 months will tell us an awful lot. If the institutions that have experiment it decided to experiment with the test option come out of this f comfortable with their new paradigm then I think that we're probably going to find it a further decline in the use of testing both the SAT and the AC T in colleges and universities.


It is worth noting also that one of the primary functions of the SAT, and the AC T to a certain extent, is that some states will use these tests as assessment examinations for students as they leave high school. That's a big part of the business model for the College Board and for the ACT. There's some speculation that there could be a further retrenchment of testing in the future I think that said, there are going to be institutions particularly state universities that are going to rely on some form of testing into the future simply because of the volume of candidates and the historic nature of their review process and more objective review process rather than holistic - holistic being we look at everything, objective being we look at the numbers - so I think that the state universities are probably going to continue to rely on some form of testing and some scholarship programs are going to rely on some form of testing as well.


ERIN: To say that we've seen a lot of change this year might be a massive understatement. Previously in some prior conversations you've compared the college admissions landscape to, forgive me I'm paraphrasing, you compared it to a glacier, moving at a glacial pace..but things are certainly moving quicker than they then they have been in my lifetime, and I'm sure in your professional experience.


PETER: You're right there's always a tendency, I think in any organization, to view change reluctantly, and I think in higher education there continues to be a sense of well, we always did it this way so why do we need to consider making changes you know if it works why fix it, and that's the metaphor reference to the glacier. Well because of COVID in particular, the glacier has been reduced to a puddle, there's been a lot of forced change just in order to for institutions to pivot effectively and continue to provide meaningful educational opportunities for young people, but also as we're discussing in here to be able to make access reasonable for students at a time when some of the traditional elements of the selection process have not been available


ERIN: Well, Peter I appreciate you taking some time to speak with us today. We hope that this conversation can be insightful for students and families who are coming up on the college admission process. If you like today's episode, be sure to give us a subscribe and share it with your friends and family, and Peter we look forward to having more future conversations with you!

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