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Test-optional admissions could become merit-optional

In China, the National College Entrance Examination called Gaokao has just ended. Test takers are enjoying a well-deserved break from three years of brutal study, but anxiety remains high as parents and students often perceive the difference of one point as being capable of making or breaking a student's future. Each college or university has a cutoff score that corresponds to the status and ranking of the university, and there is nothing much beyond that score to determine the match or fit between students and universities. The stakes are high, which has drawn heavy criticism upon Gaokao as the sole criterion for college admission.

In the meantime, on June 14th, 2008, the University of Chicago announced that it would implement a "test optional" approach and no longer require SAT or ACT scores in its admission process. Observers believe that the decision was a significant one as other top-tier universities may follow suit, and small liberal arts universities are already doing so.

The test-optional approach may not reject students submitting scores, but makes it easier for students with lower scores to apply. From a prestige perspective, the math is simple: If more people apply, selectivity goes down, ranking goes up or stays high. William Deresiewicz has warned about such manipulation in the ranking game in his book Excellent Sheep.

Test-optional approach is also associated with diversity on university campuses, increasing college representation for groups that traditionally score lower on SAT or ACT tests. However, this change negatively affects Asian students, who excel in SAT or ACT scores. In 2017, Asian students' mean score in SAT was 569, 90 points higher than 486, the lowest mean score by race or ethnicity. In math, the difference was 135 points, with Asian scores averaging 612. If admission criteria are altered to make it more challenging for Asian students to get admitted, the change is discriminatory. It is racism, if we may call things by their proper names.

In the meantime, I do not see how test optional approaches can open doors for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Wealthy students will have more resources for extracurricular activities and essay preparation. Their families have better access to social circles to find people to write impressive reference letters. I noticed that another change in the University of Chicago's admission is to ask students to submit a two-minute video as part of the admission process. Students from more impoverished families may not even have the computers or software with which to produce and edit videos. As an improvement, universities can use synchronous virtual video meetings to increase the authenticity of student presentations and spontaneity of their responses, but the same issue with technological access could persist.

It should be truism now that a test score is not everything; it is a means to an end. I applaud any effort to introduce additional ways to see an application holistically. However, when a knife is blunt, you do not start to throw away all knives and use screwdrivers to cut your meat. Standardized testing, in spite of all its problems, still presents a relatively fair and efficient way to determine which students are smart, hardworking and aspire to be perfect in what universities expect of them.

The inventor of the SAT is Carl Brigham, a eugenicist who invented the notorious racial intelligence theory, which he renounced in his later life. Today, SAT and ACT are still associated with intelligence. And part of that is correct, but the intelligence portion of the assessment is blown out of proportion. Otherwise, it would mean that more affluent kids are also smarter, as socioeconomically advantaged students could score higher. Their families may simply have more social resources to help their children study.

However, the tests also measure achievement and growth. Any school teacher will tell you that with practice, test scores can go up. I encourage people to see tests also as a proxy measure to assess and appreciate the effort, hard work, and positive personality traits. Students who score high on SAT and ACT may be smart, or they may be of average intelligence but willing to put in the effort to excel. When others are partying, playing video games or taking photos or videos for Instagram or Snapchat, they are studying math; they are reading. That shows self-discipline, persistence, and delayed satisfaction, qualities that societies also desire. Wouldn't you want to reward that? Using purely subjective admission criteria could make meritocracy optional. And that's worrisome.

China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-06-23

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