Former Bates dean takes on standardized testing in new study

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LEWISTON — Former Bates College dean of admission William Hiss was in Boston being interviewed by CBS on Tuesday.

Three news stations out of Los Angeles wanted him next and then there was Colorado and news organizations dotting the rest of the country. His phone was ringing. Messages were piling up and it was time to get back into the studio.

Hiss, for the moment, is a rock star.

“Enormous,” Hiss said of the reaction to his groundbreaking new study on the effectiveness of standardized testing. And that was good, he said, because maybe it means people are starting to get it: How well a student does in high school may be a lot more important than how she or he scores on the SAT.

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Additionally, Hiss and his co-author suggest — and strongly — that the old reliance on standardized testing may be keeping some of the brightest students out of our college classrooms.

Hiss is a former dean of admission at Bates. In the study, he found that students who submit SAT scores to colleges do not have a clear advantage over those who do not. In fact, the study suggests that high school grades have a greater influence than SAT scores on a student’s success in college.

“Human intelligence is so multifaceted, so complex, so varied, that no standardized testing system can be expected to capture it,” Hiss told National Public Radio, which aired a story on the report Tuesday. “My hope is that this study will be a first step in examining what happens when you admit tens of thousands of students without looking at their SAT scores. And the answer is, if they have good high school grades, they’re almost certainly going to be fine.”

Hiss’s study: “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” used data from 33 U.S. schools (after initially communicating with 122 institutions) that make standardized test submissions optional. The study involved nearly 123,000 student and alumni records.

Fewer than one-quarter of the 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. make SAT or American College Test submissions optional. Bates is among them. The study authors express support for that option in the abstract on the very first page of their study.

“Few significant differences between submitters and non-submitters of testing were observed in cumulative GPAs and graduation rates, despite significant differences in SAT/ACT scores,” according to the abstract. “Optional testing policies also help build broader access to higher education: non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation-to-college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with learning difficulties.”

The study is co-authored by Valerie W. Franks, former assistant dean of admissions at Bates, and is believed to be the first of its kind to raise questions about the predictive effectiveness of standardized testing. The authors assert that schools that make standardized testing optional tend to pave the way for more diversity. It also makes sure that some of the brightest students — such as dyslexics, who don’t tend to do well on fast-paced SATs — don’t fall through the cracks of standardized testing.

“Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results,” the authors asked in their executive summary, “or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply?”

Based on this study, it is far more the latter, the authors wrote.

“In a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: If students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?”

According to NPR, Hiss’ study may become part of the current public policy debate in D.C., where President Barack Obama is pushing to expand the college pool by getting more low-income and minority students into colleges and universities, along with young people who represent the first in their families to attend.

“This will help get more kids with more sophisticated educations,” Hiss said Tuesday. “We know we need to do that.”

By the supper hour Tuesday, Hiss was still being interviewed by CBS. By then, news about his study had been aired on dozens of NPR stations around the country. Websites were picking up the story and more news agencies by the hour were requesting a piece of Hiss’ time.

His hope, he said, is that it’s only the beginning of a long period of dialog during which colleges and universities can examine and evaluate the importance they put on standardized testing. At the same time, others might come to understand that maintaining good grades in high school is more valuable than cramming for that one big test.

“High school matters,” Hiss said. “Students and families need to get that message clearly.”

“Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions,” by William C. Hiss and co-author Valerie W. Franks.

The entire report can be found at nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Documents/DefiningPromise.pdf

About professor William Hiss: bates.edu/asian/faculty/asian-studies/hiss-william-c/

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