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In college admissions, standardized testing isn’t perfect — but is it even necessary?

Tests’ importance and usefulness are touted at USC-hosted gathering of higher education admissions experts

Linda Darling-Hammond at podium
Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute speaks at the CERPP conference. (Photo/Jenny Ygual)

The role of standardized testing in college admissions stood front and center at a USC-hosted gathering last week of national experts on admission and enrollment management in higher education.

“Toward More Equitable and Expert Practice,” the 10th annual conference organized by the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP) at the USC Rossier School of Education, went beyond discussions on assessing student performance to scrutinize the biases and limitations that prevent enrollment managers from improving their own practices.

CERPP conference attendees discussing topics

More than 150 admission and enrollment experts from across the nation attended the 10th annual conference of the USC Rossier Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. (Photo/Jenny Ygual)

Two panels were drawn from contributions to the new book Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions. One of the volume’s editors, Jack Buckley of the American Institutes for Research, began the project when he was still employed by the College Board and also had a critical role in the redesign of the SAT. But in his methodical overview at the conference, Buckley conceded that standardized testing is not perfect, acknowledging resource limits, difficult tradeoffs — such as cost and time constraints — and conflicting political pressures.

Optional testing?

The test-optional movement has been around since 1969, when Bowdoin College eliminated the SAT requirement. In discussing his chapter from Measuring Success, CERPP Executive Director Jerry Lucido concluded that standardized testing is too useful to go away but positioned test-optional strategies as a complement, not a substitute.

Jerry Lucido

Jerry Lucido, director of the USC Rossier Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, speaks at the conference. (Photo/Jenny Ygual)

“Together, standardize testing and the test-optional movement hold the seeds of better and more highly informed practice,” he said, “as they can mitigate the negative impact of test shortcomings and misuse while enlightening admission decisionmakers with information that can lead to better decisions, better academic advising and better results for students.”

All of the above

But the broader context for the conference had less to do with measuring the success of students than it did with assessing the performance of admission and enrollment managers.

“You operate at the nexus of high school and college,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, who spoke about LPI’s newly published report, “The Promise of Performance Assessments: Innovations in High School Learning and College Admission.” The brief describes how portfolios and capstone projects can not only improve learning for high school students but can offer a better method for admission officers to assess prospective college students.

“These approaches, albeit in a small number of places across the county, have resulted in students entering college at much higher rates than average and who complete college at twice the rate as the national average, despite socio-economic status,” said Darling-Hammond, who added that the digital portfolio is designed for ease-of-use by admission officers.

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In college admissions, standardized testing isn’t perfect — but is it even necessary?

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