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Decline of SAT and ACT leads to unfounded fears of slipping standards

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 16, 2020

The ACT, used for college admissions testing, was started in 1959.  (Courtesy)
The ACT, used for college admissions testing, was started in 1959. (Courtesy)
By Jay Mathews Washington Post

Isn’t there enough to worry about in American education? Why are people like me so bothered by the growing rejection of the SAT and ACT?

More than 60% of all U.S. four-year colleges and universities have now made the traditional entrance tests optional next year, a long-term trend boosted by the pandemic.

The University of California system has gone even further. In the next two years, taking the SAT or ACT will be optional for UC applicants, followed by two years in which those exams will not be used at all. Then the UC system will either create its own tests or make the no-test policy permanent. The California Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago also are going test blind.

A lot of us wonder how life can go on without those machine-scored rites of passage so woven into our culture. You can’t have legitimate golf without sand traps or safe driving without stoplights, right?

One concern is that without the SAT or the ACT, colleges will have only high school grade point averages to judge academic readiness. Many people think report card results have been inflated to mollify grade-anxious students and parents in K-12 schools and colleges. That suggests a future in which the assessment of learning will fade into nothingness.

I have had such worries. But recently I reread an essay by the famously unconventional author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, published in 2002 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He quoted a report by Harvard University’s Committee on Raising the Standard:

“Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily. Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity. … One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards … is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work.”

You hear that often these days. Is the slippage a threat to America’s future? Maybe not. The Harvard report Kohn cited was written in 1894. That university and our country have made great strides since, despite our being unable, 126 years later, to shed fears of grade inflation.

Kohn noted that the term itself betrays our irrationality. We are discussing learning, not economics. “Our understanding is necessarily limited if we confine ourselves to the vocabulary of inputs and outputs, incentives, resource distribution and compensation,” Kohn said.

Kohn thinks grades and test scores should be junked in favor of deeper motivators such as the joy of learning, since grades and test scores don’t predict anything but future grades and test scores. I don’t think our species is there yet. One step at a time.

We obsess over grade inflation in part because so many of us, particularly people like me who have spent most of our years in the previous century, believe our children aren’t learning as much as we did when we were in school. As a parent, I began to have doubts about that. Cleaning up my 17-year-old daughter’s room one day, I found her in-depth notes on lessons in physics I had never had. In what I considered my best course, U.S. history, she was reading scholars like Paul Kennedy, Warren Susman and Barbara Fields while I at that age considered myself a genius for just remembering the dates in the textbook.

Perhaps false impressions of a golden age of American education are the result of poor memories in my age cohort. There is no data to indicate school lessons of yesteryear were deeper than they are now. Still, grade inflation remains a popular theory.

A 2017 study by researchers from the College Board and the University of Georgia seemed to buttress that fear of declining standards. It indicated standardized exams had more predictive value than grades because average SAT scores declined 24 points between 2004 and 2013, while the average public high school GPA rose 0.11 points after 1998, and more than twice that at private nonreligious schools.

Testing expert James Murphy was not impressed. He pointed out the grade sample based on high school transcripts was no longer representative after 2009, and self-reported grades provided by the College Board included only the 48% of students who took the SAT.

More importantly, the drop in SAT scores did not seem to indicate schools weren’t preparing students well. The more likely reason was the number of test takers grew by 35% from 2004 to 2013. Many of the new participants were low-income or first-generation students who tended to score at the lower end of the scale.

A study of 55,084 students, released this January, confirmed what most past studies have shown. You can believe grades are inflated if you want, but they still appear to be better indicators of future college success than college entrance exam scores.

The study by Elaine Allensworth and Kallie Clark of the University of Chicago showed high school grade point averages were five times as strong as ACT scores in predicting college graduation. They pointed out that grades measured effort over an entire semester in different types of courses and teacher expectations. By contrast, standardized tests assessed only a few skills. Teachers might have different grading styles, but averaged out they did a better job describing how good students were.

Admission officers at the most selective colleges don’t have enough room even for applicants with the highest scores and the best grades. But students who apply themselves will likely find a college that is good for them and a path to the life they desire, whether or not their high school grades are inflated.

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