College admissions in the United States is both complex and extremely important. The nation prides itself on the provision of public education for all students, and that commitment has been one of the keys to its success as a democracy. College is increasingly seen as a necessary ingredient in the preparation of students for success in a society that requires of its workers both sophisticated skills and the flexibility to adapt quickly to change. Degrees from elite institutions remain the best means of entry into elite, powerful, profitable, and interesting careers. Under these circumstances, it is more important than ever that the college admissions system be both fair and open. Test scores play a role at a number of points in this system: in some cases that role is an intentional and useful one; in others it is an unintended and potentially counterproductive one. Nevertheless, the benefits of tests are clear and lead to our basic conclusions:
- The U.S. educational system is characterized by variety. Public, private, and parochial schools each apply their own standards, and public schools are controlled locally, not nationally. Curricula, grading standards, and course content vary enormously. In such a system, standardized tests are an efficient source of comparative information for which there is currently no substitute.
- Standardized tests can be provided at a relatively low cost to students and offer valuable efficiencies to institutions that must review thousands of applications.
- Standardized tests provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate talent. For students whose academic records are not particularly strong, a high score can lead admissions officers to consider acceptance for a student who would otherwise be rejected.
Yet tests are not always used as they should be. We offer four recommendations to institutions of higher education and one to test producers:
- Admissions policies and practices should be derived from and clearly linked to an institution's overarching intellectual and other goals.
- The use of test scores in the admissions process should serve those institutional goals.
- The admissions policies themselves, and their relationship to the institution's goals, should be clearly articulated for the public, so that students can make informed decisions about whether to apply.
- Colleges and universities should review their uses of test scores in the admissions process and, if necessary, take steps to eliminate misuses of scores. Specifically, institutions should avoid treating scores as more precise and accurate measures than they are and should not rely on them for fine distinctions among applicants.
- Test producers should intensify their efforts to make clear—both in score reports and in documents intended for students, parents, counselors, admissions officers, and the public—the limits to the information that scores supply. This could be done by supplementing the interpretive material currently supplied with clear descriptions and representations—accessible to a lay audience—of such points as the significance of the standard error and the fact that the score is a point on a range of possible scores; the accuracy with which a score can predict future academic performance (in terms of the probability that a student would achieve a particular grade point average, for example); and the significance of score differences.
While these recommendations are modest, it is the committee's hope that they will be of use as the education and legal communities struggle to address the vexing issues surrounding college admissions in the United States.