What I Never Wanted to be When I Grew Up

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not an evangelist.  I’m not a persuader.  I generally allow people to have their own opinions about things.  If you ask me mine, I’ll tell  you, or if the need is especially pressing, I may  jump in.  “Get the hell out of the way of that truck,” is probably good advice, even unsolicited. But in general, if you think the earth is flat, or one of the two political parties is the one that will save us, or that the Sox are better than the Cubs, go ahead.  Those are things that might be disprovable by others, but not by me.  I have better things to do.

Recently, Beckie Supiano of The Chronicle of Higher Education posted, correctly, I might add, that I love to have fun with data.  She linked to my blog  (I mean, my other blog) where I visualized 2010 IPEDS data.  But I also like to work with data.  I do it all the time.

When DePaul announced last February that we’d become the nation’s largest private four-year university to become test optional, we’d done our homework.  We know our stuff. We have lots of evidence, and collectively, hundreds of years of experience and hundreds of thousands of impressions on the wisdom of doing so.  This was not a spontaneous decision.  And it wasn’t done to raise test scores, increase minority enrollment, game US News and World report, or any of the other reasons the cynics have suggested.  Believe me, in a cynical contest with me, you would lose. Badly.  I’m a pro. But even if the amateur cynics were right,  it doesn’t really matter. DePaul is a university of 25,000 students, and we’re much more than an average test score in the freshman class of 2,500.  Raising that score for the sake of raising it is nowhere to be found on our internal documents or our strategic plans; and it’s not in our thinking.

We knew then, and we know now, for instance, that:

  • If you want to find someone who’s going to be a good college student, look first for good high school students.  And that means looking first and foremost at the high school GPA in tough, college-prep courses.  It’s always been that way; test-optional won’t change that. And, to the surprise of even me, in general it means regardless of the high school you attend.  Cream always rises to the top, it seems.
  • Lots of other institutions we respect–Bates, Holy Cross, Loyola of Maryland, Wake Forest, and even lots of large, public, research universities–have eliminated or reduced the need for standardized tests, and have found that the quality of their classes, as measured by performance and graduation rates, has improved.
  • Even the testing agencies themselves know that there are big differences in test score performance, associated with race or ethnicity, and especially with family income and educational opportunity.  Put another way, standardized tests work best with standardized populations.  And if fifteen hours of coaching can raise your scores from the 70th to the 90th percentile, I’d suggest coaching might be best used elsewhere.
  • The real value in standardized tests is for highly selective institutions who need to make fine (even meaningless) distinctions between otherwise very well qualified applicants.  It’s because the tests have a very low rate of false positives.  In other words, if you have a high score, you’re probably reasonably accomplished.  If you have a low score, it may, but doesn’t necessarily, mean you’re not.  When your admission slots are fixed and small relative to the number of applications you receive, you’re not going to take many chances.  You’ve already got enough students with high scores angry at you for rejecting them.
  • There are other characteristics, including those not measured on a high school transcript, and certainly not by a four-hour test, that determine whether or not someone is going to be successful in college.  In some sense, these things are almost as important as your grades.

So, I figured that we could make a policy decision–a reasoned, data-driven  policy decision–based on research and experience, and other people, including those who might not agree with it, would go along for the ride.  After all, we knew that most students who applied to DePaul would still submit an ACT or SAT score.  Lots would apply who thought “test-optional” was the same as “ability-optional.” (I need to thank my friend Chris Lydon at Providence College, another successful test-optional institution, for giving me that line.)  They’d be denied admission, as they always have been, with or without test scores. But in the end, we’d admit many good, accomplished students who just happened to have test scores lower than they thought they should.

I was wrong. Seven months after the story broke, the Sun-Times in Chicago picked it up.  Seemed odd, but when the story ran, the media jumped all over it, as if they had missed it earlier. I thought it unfortunate that a 45 minute talk with a reporter was condensed to a couple of sentences, one of which was taken totally out of context.   I thought the article missed the point of what we were doing and why we were doing it; I know this stuff inside out, and I couldn’t do it justice in a couple paragraphs (Q.E.D.) But it’s happened before.  Not a big deal.

Pencilnerd  saw it and blasted us, too.  But hey, when you make your living telling people that you can improve their scores and their chances for success in life, I guess you are expected to do so.  We’ve disagreed, and we’ve done so civilly.  I respect his right to have a differing opinion.  And it seems he respects mine.

However, Esther Cepeda used my words (I never spoke to her) and wrote a piece that is wrong on almost every level, and filled bad information and conclusions she’s jumped to based on God-knows-what.  And on top of it all, the headline was offensive and inflammatory, probably on purpose.  She seemed to be proud of her poorly formed opinions. I got angry.  I wrote another post but some thought it a little too blunt.  I took it down, and now I’m writing this.  I hope it makes sense and puts this topic into perspective.

So, for now, at least, I’ve had to turn into something I never wanted to be: A Crusader for the Test-Optional movement.  So be it.  I don’t think the Esther Cepedas of the world will ever get it.  And I know you should never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.  But my worst habit is my inability to tolerate pride in ignorance.  Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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