The Effect of Standardized Testing on College Admissions: An Expert’s Opinion

Faculty Frustration with High School Curricula

Having spent the majority of my career in enrollment management positions, the question of standardized testing’s impact on college admissions arises more frequently than you might expect. Collegiate faculty often express frustration with high school curricula, particularly the lack of courses that encourage students to think critically or synthesize information independently. As many faculty members would attest, high school curricula often teach to the test.

The Effect of Standardized Testing on College Admissions

The Paradox of Standardized Testing

Interestingly, despite this frustration, when asked if they’d like to eliminate standardized testing, faculty members often respond with a resounding “No.” But why? Faculty cite several reasons. First, test scores indicate mastery (or lack thereof) of material, especially in STEM fields. Second, despite well-documented issues of testing being skewed toward more affluent students, professors believe test scores place students on an even playing field for learning. Regardless of background, high school attended, or personal circumstances, a standardized test score allows students to be compared against their peers, albeit not always fairly. Finally, faculty strongly believe in the correlation between test scores and college classroom performance.

Changing Course: The Test-Optional Model

How do we change course? Eliminating testing altogether is a complex issue. However, we can begin to move faculty away from their reliance on testing—a long, winding, uphill battle. Here’s a small story to illustrate that point.

At my last college, I took on the challenge of moving the institution to a test-optional model for admissions. During the spring semester, as I made my daily rounds in the faculty dining room, my pitch, while seemingly well-received, was always met with skepticism. My daily lunch skirmishes seemed to be a losing battle, with faculty members flanking me at every opportunity. Then, I found an ally—a well-respected professor, both among his peers and the student body. Over countless cups of coffee, we strategized a new plan: attack the faculty with their own ammunition—data.

Data-Driven Advocacy

After a summer of mining data, performing multiple regression analyses, and combing through admission test scores and subsequent grades earned by students, we had what we needed. That fall, we conducted a series of afternoon faculty listening sessions. Armed with our data, we demonstrated how little a test score predicted a student’s classroom performance. In fact, our analysis showed that a standardized test score was the least impactful of the five variables we studied. When we moved to a faculty vote at the pre-Thanksgiving meeting, we succeeded with resounding success—a vote of 58-2.

The Success of Test-Optional Admissions

Now in its sixth cycle of test-optional admissions, the faculty couldn’t be happier. Students are more engaged, think more clearly and independently, and classroom outcomes have remained consistently strong.

The Limitations of Standardized Testing

Standardized testing, especially in STEM, can feel archaic. It’s black and white, right and wrong, and easy to grade. You either know the material or you don’t. However, it fails to teach students to think critically, test their skills, hypothesize, and sometimes fail. Revising or removing testing from the admission process or faculty ranks seems insurmountable. Until then, I’ll continue advocating for testing revision, and more so, for its removal altogether.

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Former Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Selection & Constituent Relations at Johns Hopkins
Former Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Wofford College
Former Senior Enrollment Associate at University of Lynchburg

13 Years in Johns Hopkins University Admissions
7 Years in Wofford College Admissions
5 Years at Lynchburg College
75,000+ Applications Read and Evaluated

Mr. Birney earned his Bachelor’s Degree in history and his Master’s Degree in Education from Lynchburg College, now the University of Lynchburg. Like many admission professionals, John began his higher education career at his alma mater where he focused his efforts on students from the Mid-Atlantic region, athletic recruitment, and building strong personal relationships with his families. In his role as Senior Associate Director of Admissions and Selection at Johns Hopkins University, John evaluated and had final authority on admissions decisions on all applicants to the Whiting School of Engineering and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He also worked to recruit and evaluate applications from all student-athletes in both their Division I and III programs. In addition, Mr. Birney was responsible for all merit scholarship reviews, and was responsible for the office’s public relations efforts, working with over 30,000 students and families annually to help ensure a successful college visit.

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