Post-Secondary Education and Standardized Testing

After last week’s brief shift in tone, I’ll be switching back to my usual format for this post. To help ease the transition and avoid any stylistic whiplash, there will be some thematic similarity between last week’s post and this one. In this case, I’ll be discussing the value given to standardized testing when it comes to post-secondary education — more to the point, I’ll be assessing whether that value is higher than it should be.

That’s a bit of an abstract prompt for a discussion, so I’ll begin with a recent anecdote about perhaps the most infamous standardized test of all: the SAT.

A student has recently started considering post-secondary education and has applied at a number of institutions. This student has performed quite well in prior studies, regularly getting straight As, and has an amazing cavalcade of achievements outside the classroom: community involvement, activism, and a number of prestigious awards and accolades. The student expresses interest in a well-known American university. The university looks over the impressive list of qualifications, and says that the student will have to complete the SAT in order to be considered for admission.

The school? Stanford University. The student? Malala Yousafzai.

Okay, so maybe “a number of prestigious awards and accolades” is a bit of an understatement when describing the accomplishments of Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel laureate in history. For those unfamiliar with her story, the Wikipedia article linked above (or a cursory google search) should tell you everything you need to know. I don’t really have the space to do it justice here.

Put simply, Yousafzai’s extracurricular qualifications kick yours to the curb. I don’t care if you were the president of your student council or won gold at the regional track meet. Unless you were the president of your country or made it to the Olympics, you’re not going to beat a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The people at Stanford — specifically, their Admissions Department — know this. They’re no doubt entirely familiar with everything that Yousafzai has done. Yet they’re still saying that she must complete the SAT to be considered for admission.

Some people are upset about this. Many of them argue (either explicitly or implicitly) that a Nobel Peace Prize should be sufficient to grant one admission to the university of their choosing, especially when the activism that earned the Nobel Prize was fighting for the universal accessibility of quality education.

Right off the bat, I think it must be noted that Stanford was going to draw some level of criticism no matter what they did in this situation. If they had waived the SAT for Yousafzai, they would potentially have opened themselves up to criticism on grounds of unfair and inconsistent policies. As one of the top universities in the US, Stanford is likely under intense scrutiny to ensure that its admissions process is as uniform and fair as possible. People frequently criticize top universities for prioritizing “legacy students” (those whose parents attended the same school) in the admissions process, and rightly so, but directly subverting the policy for a single student is only going to invite more condemnation.

Furthermore, let’s be realistic. Yousafzai performed very well on the GCSE, which is more or less the UK’s equivalent to the SAT, so she’ll likely also perform well on the latter. Unless she scores extremely low, Stanford is almost certainly going to accept her application and offer her a large scholarship, and not just because they’ll want some good press.

This is where things start to tie into the broader question of what place standardized testing should have in post-secondary education. I should note that I really won’t be addressing any standardized testing that takes place earlier in a student’s academic path than the SAT, primarily because I feel John Oliver already said almost everything I could think to say in this video.

Even the SAT is having its value called into question. A 2014 study found that SAT scores were less predictive of college success than high school grades, and a growing number of schools no longer require applicants to write the test. Nonetheless, I still believe that the SAT can be a valuable tool to help determine a candidate’s aptitude for post-secondary education.

University applicants come from a very diverse array of backgrounds, countries, and education systems, and that’s definitely a good thing! Diversity in academia helps promote an enriching conversation instead of thousands of people all saying the same things (at least, that’s how it should work, but that’s a whole other topic). The only problem arises when spaces are limited and universities must compare candidates from these different backgrounds and decide who gets accepted and who doesn’t.

To use the example of Malala Yousafzai applying to Stanford, do the people working in the admissions department know how the education systems in Pakistan and the United Kingdom compare to that of, say, South Dakota? If they see two applications where both candidates have similarly glowing extracurriculars (lots of Nobel laureates want to go Stanford this year, I guess) and their only difference is a couple of decimal points in their GPAs from two different school systems, how do they make the choice?

This might seem like a statistically unthinkable possibility, but over 40,000 people apply to Stanford each year, and only about 2,000 are accepted. And that’s just one school. Admissions departments around the world have to make these sorts of decisions every year. The goal of the SAT is to take the variability out of a student’s academic performance, and create a metric by which anyone applying to an American institution can be assessed and compared.

The same line of reasoning underpins the entrance exams for many graduate programs, like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT, the latter of which I currently plan on writing in the not-too-distant future. Because many grad schools and programs accept applicants from all kinds of backgrounds (for example, you can apply to law school whether you have a BA in English Lit, a BSc in chemistry, or anything else), they need some comparable method of assessing the aptitude of their applicants.

This approach is admittedly imperfect. There are plenty of academically strong students who simply don’t test well, but excel at other forms of evaluation; standardized tests may not be fully indicative of these students’ abilities. As previously mentioned, the SAT (as well as the LSAT) is only a moderate predictor of future academic success. But that’s why these tests are just one thing in a list of many that an institution (particularly one for which admission is notably competitive) can look at in assessing their applicants.

That’s why Yousafzai will almost certainly be accepted into Stanford if she wants to be, unless her SAT score is unbelievably low (which, based on her academic history, seems unlikely). Her other qualifications are impeccable and would make her an outstanding candidate even if some applicants score higher than her on the SAT. If anything, I suspect the SAT requirement is basically just a formality, since Stanford can’t break their own rules without changing the application requirements for everyone.

This does raise concerns about the future of standardized testing at this level, though. As other factors (such as high school grades, extracurriculars, and community involvement) take on larger roles in the admissions process at many institutions, is there any point in continuing these tests?

I would suggest that the exams for graduate programs, including the LSAT, will likely persist for the foreseeable future. Since applicants for many of these programs could theoretically have studied anything for their undergrad degree, there needs to be some method of assessing their aptitude for the potentially new direction that their scholarly path is taking.

The SAT, though? Well, as mentioned, individuals like Yousafzai and international organizations like the UN are calling for quality education for everyone around the world, and I believe that goal can be reached if world governments are willing to put in the effort. If universities feel confident about the standards to which education systems hold their students, regardless of the country or region, then high school grades will become a more universally valid method of assessment and the SAT will be superfluous.

So perhaps asking Yousafzai to write the SATs so she can pursue her studies in politics and philosophy and continue to champion the virtues of education is just one more sacrifice that the world is asking her to bear. Go on and write the SAT, Malala. Go write it so that future generations don’t have to.

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