One of the many changes the country is witnessing as an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is a national retreat from the requirement of standardized tests in higher education. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) issued a report that more than half of four-year colleges and universities will be test-optional for Fall 2021 admissions. As CCA works to transform higher education, we must understand this inflection point as an opportunity to question assumed historical practices. The reimagining of our colleges and universities should move beyond a temporary response to crisis to inform a path of deep and sustainable change to best serve students. The use of multiple measures for admissions and placement is a prime example of how improving institutional systems can have a profound impact on student success.
The reporting of bias in standardized testing is not new, and together with reporting about the racist history of standardized testing, it is beyond time that we end this debate and move to action. Standardized tests are problematic for many reasons including the reduction of students to test scores that does not reflect their full being or potential. While they may assess discrete operational knowledge in an immediate on-demand setting that prioritizes demonstrable solutions, they miss important processes of editing, revision, learning from mistakes, finding multiple solutions, metacognition, and collaboration that are important in education, work, and life. At a larger level, a reliance on standardized testing for college admissions demonstrates a philosophy of meritocracy to access education rather than a democratic approach that sees education as a right for all and a necessary public good. If we want higher education to reflect society as a whole and not reinforce racial and economic inequalities that already exist, then we must consider how our structures work towards or against that goal. For scaled transformation to be sustained and have lasting impact, changes made now should become permanent and not replace one bad practice with another, or as the case may be, not substitute one set of standardized tests for another.
Reducing overreliance on standardized testing can protect against Goodhart’s law which posits that when a measure that serves as an indicator becomes the target, it ceases to function as a valid indicator. As pointed out in The Testing Charade by Daniel Koretz, tests can be valuable for measuring academic achievement, but become distorted when they are used as the focus of teaching and as a base for social decision making. Consider students or families who pay for test prep courses that purport to boost scores and teach specific test-taking strategies. This begs the question if a test is truly a reflection of student ability or rather a measure of who has the capital and economic resources to access this support. As this is magnified beyond individuals, a significant number of Black, Latinx students, and students from low-income families are disadvantaged with significant equity implications writ large.
One way to expand access to college courses is by using multiple measures that, along with placement tests, can include measures of high school performance as well as student motivation. While standardized tests look at student performance at one point of time on discrete measures, high school GPA reflects student performance over time. Non-cognitive measures factor into this such as persistence, work habits, attendance patterns, ability to turn in assignments, and follow through on deadlines – all critical behaviors for college. Research studies consistently demonstrate that high school GPA is a better predictor of college success, including this study by Elisabeth Barnett and colleagues published by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR), a project of the Community College Research Center and MDRC. As standardized tests are often used as gatekeepers to keep students out of classes or programs, a better approach is to create paths for students to enroll directly into college courses through corequisite support. This pairs access with the structural supports that yield student success. For example, Alexandra Logue and colleagues published research on corequisite support demonstrates that students in corequisite support math courses have higher pass rates in their college-level courses and graduation rates compared to their peers. The Multiple Measures Assessment Project in California published a research study which finds that ALL students, including the lowest performing high school students, are more likely to complete gateway college-level English and math courses when allowed to enroll directly into them as compared to taking a traditional remedial course.
There is no question about the value of higher education to propel both individuals and the country forward because of the links between education, the workforce, and the economy. It is important to ask which students are being served and how they represent the populations of their communities and our country. To address systematic and disproportionate inequities, colleges and universities must address the needs of Black, Latinx, first-generation, and low-income students through policies and practices that increase college access and success. A comprehensive strategy that combines multiple measures and corequisite support is one example of an approach that demonstrates valuing student potential and supporting them to gain early momentum in college courses to put them on a path to graduation. Students can and will succeed when institutions adopt the right systems and structures for success.