Catching The Wave

As I did a presentation this morning for the President’s Council (the VP’s, Deans, and other important faculty and administrators at DePaul) on implementation progress of our test-optional pilot program, several things occurred to me:  The whole test-optional discussion nationwide is really less about statistical r-squareds than it is about combating information cascades.

But at the same time, there are some statistics involved.

The critics of test-optional are effectively saying, “Prove you don’t need the SAT or ACT, because I think it’s valuable.”  Undertaking such an endeavor is a fool’s game.  As any statistician can tell you, you really can’t prove anything with statistics with absolute certainty; you can only hope to say that you can’t disprove the opposite (or the null hypothesis.)

There is a really great article in the New York Times from 2007 that talks about information cascades, or the way in which information makes its way into our collective conscience.  While it’s ostensibly about low-fat diets and the purported evidence against them, it suggests an interesting parallel to standardized testing.

Why do we use tests?  Did any of us sit down and say, “Let me examine how and why we should make admissions decisions?”  If you work in the field, and you’re like me, you learned about standardized tests by taking them yourself.  And then you learned when you started in admissions that these were the way you were judged, and the way you will judge others.  Your own bias leads you to believe that they are meaningful.  Because, as Sternberg points out (and I do hate to keep referring to this, piece, but it’s just so dead-on) that the Similarity Effect leads us to perpetuate our approach:

“To get to a position in which you make decisions about applicants, in part on the basis of their test scores, you had to do well enough yourself on the tests to get into that position of decision-making authority. The fundamental principle of interpersonal attraction is that we are attracted to others like ourselves.  So the decision-makers select those who, like themselves, did well on the tests.”

And of course, Harvard uses them (and may, in fact need them), so we must require them in order to look more like Harvard.

The test-optional movement is really one that is refreshingly honest: While admitting that there is some value to standardized testing, we use data and our own experience to collectively conclude that we don’t need the tests for the vast majority of students we admit.

It’s not always easy to swim against the current.  But the people we’re swimming with make it more interesting.  Not to mention fun.


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