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For true higher-ed diversity, we must break the testing monopoly

Every parent and teacher recognizes students’ anxiety about high-stakes testing for college admissions. In recent years, universities experimented with removing standardized test requirements for admissions, believing the SAT and ACT fail to capture the diversity of students’ educational backgrounds and aptitudes. Many viewed these moves as even more necessary after the Supreme Court ruled universities could not employ affirmative action in admissions. 

Yet as the University of Texas at AustinBrownYaleMIT and others recognize the necessity of some form of testing and reimpose requirements, they risk yet again discriminating against specific demographics of students. Do we have to choose between diversity and objective measurements of college readiness?

I think the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean we should rest content to return to the status quo. Universities should break the rigid SAT/ACT testing monopoly and welcome standardized tests that reflect the breadth and diversity of America’s educational landscape. 

Universities should welcome assessments better suited for the rapidly growing population of home-school and classical school students, an increasingly large number of whom are minorities.

From 2017 to 2023 the number of home-school students increased a remarkable 51 percent. Forty-one percent of home-school students are nonwhite, with Black families in particular rushing to home-school their children during the pandemic. In fact, the number of Black home-school children skyrocketed from 3.3 percent in the spring of 2020 to 16.1 percent by the end of that year. Across all races, a significant number of those students are classically educated. One of the largest homeschool networks, Classical Conversations, saw a 20 percent enrollment jump from 2020 to 2023.

Classical schools have been on a similar trajectory. New classical schools are growing at a rate of 5 percent a year — including many urban classical schools that enroll larger numbers of students of color — and those that exist often turn applicants away for lack of space.

Yet home-school and classical school students are not obviously well served by the current testing regime. Public schools teach to the test, which too often means approaching curricula and lesson plans as methods of SAT and ACT preparation. Home-school and classical school families pursue different educational methods and priorities, and, as a result, their students may underperform on those tests. 

It doesn’t follow from this, however, that they are unprepared for college. We must recognize that they have been differently prepared for college — in a manner that is unrecognized by the current testing regime.

For example, imagine there is a classically educated student whose parents elected to have them study great works of literature, philosophy and theology rather than current events or politics. When they open up their SAT test, they may feel less confident in their interpretive strategies when faced with College Board-chosen reading samples from, say, Sens Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Yet that same student will feel at home when faced with passages from Plato or George Eliot.

This vignette points to an often-overlooked fact: These tests do not simply measure context-free skills, they reflect educational choices and values that not all students share. We do well to remember that before the rise of the college board, entrance exams were based on a student’s ability to translate Latin.

I’ll let others judge whether the student of Sanders or Plato is better prepared for university study, but students deserve more choices when it comes to high-stakes testing, and the current testing monopoly is hardly the sole standard of college aptitude.

One option is a relatively new alternative assessment called the Classic Learning Test (full disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor on the Classical Learning Test’s academic Board). The Classical Learning Test is a better fit for many home-school and classic school students because it measures not just “skills,” but students’ ability to grapple with some of the greatest poets, philosophers, novelists, scientists and mathematicians of the past. 

Moreover, research reveals that the SAT and ACT are far from the only useful measure of college aptitude. For example, a Classical Learning Test-SAT comparison study found not only do both tests measure similar skills by different means, but scores from the two tests have a high correlation of .89. 

If we are going to return to high-stakes testing in a world without affirmative action, we must not continue to lock applicants into a one-size-fits-all testing regime that favors specific models of education over others. Universities must break the monopoly and start welcoming alternative examinations that reflect the diverse and changing reality of the education landscape in this country.

Jennifer Frey is dean of the Honors College at the University of Tulsa.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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