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NACAC and Standardized Testing


I’ve been a member of NACAC for a long time, and even though I’m from Iowa, my most frequent observations about the organization’s limitations have centered on its propensity to avoid confrontation. It was usually more Iowa-nice than even I could handle.

Of course, I can only imagine how hard it must be to run or lead an organization like NACAC. I was gratified when Angel Pérez was announced as the new CEO in May, as I thought it would be good for the organization to have an experienced EM leader at the helm; juggling competing priorities and striking a balance between and among contradictory objectives is what we do. And although the work of the task force on standardized testing was well underway before he assumed the helm, I can’t help but wonder whether he had some direct influence on this, or whether his appointment may have emboldened some members of the committee as they crafted their final recommendations.

I found a lot to like, but little to be surprised at in the report. If you know a lot about tests, the recommendations are pretty straightforward and make a lot of sense. In fact, at first, I was a bit disappointed, until I realized (duh) that this report is not for me. And it’s not a book about college admissions, designed to blow the doors off backroom dealings, the myth of the American meritocracy, or the tragic lack of progress we’ve made in the last 50 years in opportunity. The report is none of that. It’s not supposed to be.

The report is an institutional call to action, and I suspect it will be a helpful tool for colleagues who don’t feel they are in a position of power to effect change at their institutions. It makes some basic recommendations, that, if adopted by colleges, are likely to increase the awareness of the problems with standardized testing. And while doing so–while pointing out the things that should cause people to come to some important conclusions about testing–carefully avoids coming to their conclusions for them.

In other words, it’s a road map to tell you how to get there, without telling you where you’re going: Think of the student experience; look hard and deep at your data; consider societal costs; think about our colleagues on the high school side. And welcome to test-optional, or maybe, test-blind.

The section covering the effects on secondary schools, I suspect, will cause some people in universities to see testing in a new light. And that section is, thankfully, not just focused on the schools in Massachusetts or Kentucky or Oklahoma or Nevada, but also the schools in India and China and Kenya and Scotland, where both non-citizens unaccustomed to US styles of education, and children of Americans living abroad have to go to some considerable measures to test. These are all issues of access and equity, two presumed cornerstones of our profession.

The report touches (lightly) upon the history of tests, and acknowledges that times have changed as America has. I think it could have hit this much harder, but of course, some of the big players in NACAC have a big stake in tests, and testing agencies and test prep companies rent a lot of space at the National Conference each year. But I believe the history of the tests, if more widely known and understood, could go a long way toward turning the tide (no relation to the Harvard task force of the same name, naturally.)

Testing is one thing when it’s administered to small groups of mostly wealthy white boys from New England prep schools. It’s another when millions of tests are administered across the county and around the world, to students from widely divergent backgrounds and means.

The report also mentions the cozy relationship between the testing agencies and colleges: Tests offer something to both, at the expense of students and people in the high schools. Sometimes, the report acknowledges, tests offer a “tantalizing shortcut” to the work of admissions officers. The lost opportunity of this approach is one of the hidden costs and unintended consequences of the process we find ourselves stuck with today.

The strongest and most illuminating message has to do, I think, with the effects of testing on secondary schools. The testing agencies get a lot of free space, a lot of free labor, and a lot of promotion of their products in exchange for–for what, exactly? The report suggests that this too, causes inequity, and if the colleges want to require testing, perhaps they should support those efforts themselves. And even those initiatives that strive to address inequality (school-day testing, for instance) are paid for by someone (usually the taxpayers.) Again, it’s good for the agencies and good for the colleges.

Finally, the report makes some recommendations about addressing inequality in areas other than testing. This is important, of course, as systematic issues won’t disappear once you eliminate one facet of them.

Having been on a NACAC task force myself, and others like it, I know how hard it must have been to write a report like this, making strong statements, respecting the rights of colleges to operate as they see appropriate, and understanding that easy answers are not abundant. While this is not the “burn it all down” document I would have hoped for, I realize my hopes in that regard are nothing but a pipe dream.

I think it’s a good start, and if this gets a lot of play with presidents, provosts, faculty, and boards of trustees, it could easily mark the beginning of an expansion of a change already underway (the report has some data about the number of colleges who have eliminated standardized testing either in conjunction with, or as a response to, COVID-19).

Let’s hope it’s not just that; let’s hope it marks a change in the way NACAC pulls its members together to fight for things educators think are important.

By Jon Boeckenstedt

I am currently the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University; what you see here is solely my opinion, and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of anyone at OSU.

One reply on “NACAC and Standardized Testing”

Once again, Jon, on the money, clean and clear. Testing agencies have had free reign over our high school facilities and staff for too long while making obscene profits from students, colleges, and other entities interested in buying student data. The burden on test administrators has increased to the point of ridiculousness.
In the heat of the moment, it is imperative that all parties involved in assessment and admission review ask themselves if what they are engaged in is in the best interest of the student. Students are the reason and the lifeblood of our work, and we must deliberate how we can promote and enhance student development- for every individual. Treating applicants and examiners with dignity and respect, even momentarily mentoring them, should be the center of our concerns.
How does testing assist students in their bid for higher education? How could testing be improved to have real value on a student’s life choices and learning? Instead of admission gatekeeping, shouldn’t the focus of testing be to provide a roadmap on how students can make the most of their educational experience? How can testing serve students, instead of serving them up for rapid comparison?
Jon, you have always seen this for what it is, and the depth and breadth of your consideration for students have always been at the forefront of your work. Balancing the desires of an administration with the hopes and dreams of a teenager can’t be easy, but you have been able to educate your various administrations on how to treat candidates with ethical consideration. At least that’s how it looks from the outside. Many thanks for diving into the issues that shape not only our profession but who we are as human beings.

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