by Jill Tiefenthaler

Trials and Tribulations of a College Education in the 21st Century |


The accepted framework for college admissions is showing rust at the joints and no longer supports the right parts of the educational enterprise. It is time to rethink college admissions, and particularly the role of standardized testing. With only marginal predictive value for performance in college, standardized scores do nothing to suggest what a student might contribute to the character and vitality of an intellectual community.

When we at Wake Forest University began to rethink our admissions process, we looked for the best ways to choose students who would rise to the challenges of our rigorous community and enliven it by their presence. We wanted to affirm the full range of talents, skills, and values that we seek in the students we enroll -- things that don't show up on standardized tests: integrity, work ethic, open-mindedness, and that passion for learning that drives students to lose themselves in classic literature or intricate math problems.

Standardized tests were never intended to measure the complexities of intelligence, and over time they have drawn the center of gravity in college admissions away from things we value. Because scores generally improve with guidance and repetition, the tests have encouraged an industry of test training that takes advantage of the ambitions of students and families.

Test preparation courses are common, and students take tests over and over to improve their performance. At the extreme, consultants whose fees reach tens of thousands of dollars are contributing to an escalating craze. This race leads to first-year students already experiencing academic burnout because their passions languished while their test skills were honed.

The SAT was originally conceived as an objective measure to even the differences in curriculum and grading across the country. But objectivity has eroded, while the perceived importance of the test has grown. While it is true that there is some correlation between test scores and college grades, careful analyses reveal that high school grades are still the best predictors of college success, with test scores adding only marginally to a predictive model that takes into account high school grades.

At Wake Forest University, we saw more costs than benefits to standardized tests. We wanted to signal to prospective students what we really care about: four years of high school success in the most rigorous available curriculum, applied creativity and imagination, and hunger for the opportunity of a Wake Forest education. After careful thought, we made test scores optional -- and hoped to enroll students with a broader range of talents, backgrounds, and abilities.

Our bold decision worked.

We heard from students who are artists and critical thinkers and not great test-takers, first-generation students with fabulous high school records and no access to the test preparation industry, and students with extremely high test scores and a longing to be known for more than their numbers. This mix of applicants is valuable as we build an engaged community one person at a time.

Clarinet players, too. In an imaginary admissions committee meeting where students' records are interpreted as a quotient of standardized test scores and grade-point averages, those students in the top tier according to the quotient are offered admission. When they enroll, they might find themselves in a class with no clarinet players for the symphony, no passionate political activists, or an overwhelming number of aspiring doctors. It is also likely that there would be too few students who had encountered jarring social and economic challenges.

The ways a college chooses from among its applicants should reflect its values. If the school is serious about attention to individual students and the relationships they will form with faculty and their peers, the process should invest in the time to consider students across a broad range of criteria: personal interviews, reflective essays, letters of recommendation, and a thorough examination of high school curriculum and grades. These reveal more about intellectual ability and curiosity than the score on a test administered one Saturday morning.

In a complex, high-stakes process like college admissions, constructing a new framework is never easy. But the effort is worth it. In our dynamic world, the nature of the learning community shapes the leaders our students will become, so boldly seeking new answers is the right thing to do.

The ways a college chooses from among its applicants should reflect its values.

Jill Tiefenthaler, formerly a professor of economics, was named provost of North Carolina's Wake Forest University in 2007.


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Students are More than Numbers in College Admissions Process