Saturday, April 28, 2007

On a Modular SAT: A discussion between Scott White, Director of Guidance at Montclair High School in NJ and Pamela T. Horne, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions Purdue University
Original post by Scott White:

I was conversing via e-mail the other day with Brad Macgowen about the College Board's response to our proposal to allow students to take only one or two sections of the SAT at each testing (or at least, as the ACT does, make the essay section optional). I repeated my feeling that their reaction is like the Bush administration's response to global warning. They are studying it (interpretation: "ignoring something that they have total disregard for") and will only act on it if absolutely forced by circumstances.Well, we came up with a proposal: why not let the College Board know that we are serious about the need to serve students by withholding dues payments. Certainly, they do not need our money so this is a symbolic gesture. I see no advantage to College Board membership. What's the down side of stopping being a member? Not being able to vote? It does not seem as if they are bringing any substantive issues to the membership, thus our vote is meaningless. The College Board has moved so far from its original mission that it has ceased, in any meaningful way, to be a true membership organization.Save your school a few hundred dollars and make a statement at the same time. Let the College Board know that they need to be responsive to the needs of students and desires of its membership to earn our participation and membership.

Response from Pamela T. Horne:

Scott please let me assure you that the SAT modularity issue has been and continues to be thoroughly discussed by the Guidance and Admission Assembly National Council of which I am a member representing the Midwestern region. The SAT Committee has also been studying this issue for over a year. The College Board is not dragging its feet, but rather is working with the membership through the governance process. There is absolutely no consensus in GAAC or among the members whom I talk with in the Midwest around this issue. In fact, the sentiment among many members tends against test modularity for several reasons:

1) Access and gaming its very likely that it would be wealthier students who would have the time, resources, and access to advice from others to take advantage of modular testing“ already we know that low-income students frequently wait until the fall of senior year to test at all, and that they are much less likely to take multiple sittings of admissions tests we know that low-income and first-generation students are at schools with 600-1000 student to counselor ratios and would not have access to advice regarding taking the SAT in a modular fashion. I have already seen wealthy students who know that some scholarships use mix and match scores from multiple sittings as criteria blow off one part of the SAT in order to score well on others (700 math and 400 CR in one sitting and 600 math and 550 in an earlier one). And clearly, it is well-off students who have the time and resources to forgo multiple Saturday mornings work and family obligations and stack their test preparation for a single module at a time. Low income students don’t have those luxuries or privileges.
2) Concordance Admissions staff members are dependent upon the ACT Comp/SAT CR+Math concordance scale “ it is not appropriate nor would it be sound educational practice to compare candidates who have taken the SAT in a modular fashion with candidates who have taken the ACT in one sitting. In the interest of full disclosure, I can tell you that many of us in the admissions community (including all of the Big Ten) are advocating strongly with ACT that the writing exam be mandatory. You don’t have to deal with it being in an SAT-dominant part of the country but the optional writing exam has created serious confusion among students in the Midwest and the South with the high school counselors and admissions professionals holding the bag of communicating to students about whether or not they should opt for writing. I and others have told ACT that they have also sent a tacit message to high school students that writing skills are not important or at least optional (lets face it “ teens are not going to look at ACTs published reasons for not requiring it).
3) Whom would be protected by the availability of a modular SAT option and for what genuine purpose Millions of teenagers all over the world in other cultures sit for very high-stakes exams that last many hours over several days. These tests absolutely determine their fate and access to higher education (and in some places at ages much younger than 17 or 18). ALL US high school graduates have access to higher education, regardless of scores on standardized tests (no, not everyone has access to their top choices “ but neither will they throughout their lives always have access to first or top choices in jobs, location, etc that’s a part of being an adult and a human being). Are our American young people subject to more pressure than Chinese or German students? Of course not -- just the reverse is true. Are our American young people such hot house flowers that they cannot tolerate 4 hours (with several breaks) in one sitting? And honestly we all heard a lot of fuss from students and parents during the first year with writing there has been virtual silence on the issue of test length this year. I believe most students are pretty sturdy and accepting of change, especially when they know all of their peers are going through the same process.

The most common reason brought forward for modularity is fatigue if that is a disadvantaging factor (and the data so far do not support that it is) then it is a phenomenon that is experienced equitably and universally and is not a differentiating disadvantage among individual test-takers (yes, I understand that students with documented disabilities may be there for more than 4 hours). To allow or encourage modularity, however, would inevitably advantage those who are already advantaged and introduce an unsound psychometric variability in admissions assessments when SAT and ACT scores are compared.

The issue of whether or not there are benefits of College Board membership is another issue and another debate. Resigning membership due to opinion on this issue or any others is of course an option any educational institution can take. But if you post discussion around modularity issue (rather than College Board membership in general), I hope that you will include a full discussion of the issue and not just comments from those who agree with you.

I very much appreciate your passion and advocacy for your students -- but please remember that your students have access to you, a college-going culture throughout your school, and 25 AP courses. Your students would probably benefit from modularity, among the many other opportunities they have available. I don’t think the same can be said for a student from a farm in rural Indiana where there are 25 kids in his senior class, only 5 of whom aspire to a 4-year college, and maybe one part-time counselor for an entire school system. Nor could it be said for a neighborhood high school in inner city Detroit or the upper peninsula of Michigan were there isn’t an AP course (or the availability of even taking the SAT for that matter) within 200 miles. It’s a big country out there with very diverse needs. I believe that while we work to ensure a better education for all of our students that we should also preserve what little equity exists.

Scott White’s response with Pamela T. Horne’s’s comments (italicized)


I appreciate your thoughtful and detailed response. You have obviously given this issue a lot of thought and reflection. Despite that, I disagree with virtually all your premises, whether on logistical, financial or educational grounds.

First to the argument that modular testing benefits the rich. Yes, in many communities students take the test only once. But we have a group of kids, quite a few in fact, who are lower income but not so low as to qualify for fee waivers. They do not take the test more than once not for logistical reasons but for financial ones. Two $45 fees are a real sacrifice. But if this kid had to re-take just the math portion, this would make a difference to this kid. Your example of kids who take the test only once is twisted do we not know that if there were modular testing that these students would not now re-test more often. Those students who test late and only once truly do not need modular testing but would not be disadvantaged by it. Most score very low and attend less selective or 2-year colleges.

You may be correct about potential benefits of modularity for those low-income students who have access to good counseling like yours; sadly, the vast majority do not Some of our differences in opinion may be regionally-based. It is not my experience (at 3 Big Ten universities in two states) that most students who test late end up attending 2-year colleges .Its not even necessarily true that they score very low “and I’ve reviewed hundreds of such files -- they just didn’t have access to college planning advice in their schools or homes that encouraged junior year testing. The Big Ten public universities enroll hundreds of fall-only testers each year as we do with all admissions factors; we review their test scores in a holistic manner, considering the context of their communities and their schools.

During my years in Michigan (at both UM and MSU), we worked very hard to try to convince urban (and rural for that matter) counselors that junior year testing was a good thing many were specifically advising their students to wait until senior year, under the assumption they would score higher later. But counseling staff at many urban schools move through a revolving door as hard as the universities committed to outreach worked, these messages were difficult to embed in schools that are not adequately or consistently staffed. This is one of the reasons that we started a free-of-charge one-day high school counselor conference funded by all the public universities in Michigan so we could continually help educate new counselors about these and other issues over 600 now attend this annual event. Most counselors in Midwest states have no funding or release time to attend ACAC meetings and the like. Its also why (more full disclosure) I personally lobbied hard with the Michigan State Board of Education and Legislature to replace the state junior-level assessment (which in my judgment as a parent and an educator did NOT serve any purpose other than complying with NCLB and giving some school districts bragging rights and higher real estate prices) with a college admissions test. I wanted every kid in Michigan to have the chance to test early, receive the helpful feedback that either ACT or College Board provides, get on college mailing lists, start to see themselves as college-bound, and test free (and have a re-test for free if they wish). I didn’t care which test I just wanted the kids to have the access I’m very proud that the Michigan Merit Exam, which includes a nationally portable ACT+writing, was administered to virtually every high school junior in Michigan for the first time this March. All Michigan kids also have the opportunity to re-test on a national testing date next fall for free. The test will also give the schools quicker feedback on their students that is nationally normed and relevant to their student’s futures not just a reflection of their pasts. The kids, knowing that they could have a personal stake in the outcome, are also taking the junior level assessment much more seriously. MI should see an immediate jump in the # of low-income and minority students attending college in 2008 it happened in IL and CO. Indiana is also considering a state-wide, state-funded admissions test in some ways I hope that it ends up being the SAT, because we are surrounded by states that have or are considering adopting the ACT for this purpose’s. The entire country benefits from having both tests and the competition keeps both testing services on their toes. I don’t want either College Board or ACT to have a national monopoly. But most importantly, it’s about the kids and access.

And just in case you might think I’ve been co-opted by the College Board, I also served on the Michigan ACT Council, chaired it a year ago, and was the keynote speaker at the Indiana ACT conference a few weeks ago. The Big Ten Admissions Directors and ACAOPU (directors from large publics all over the country) also meet very regularly with regional and national staff from both testing services. Leadership in both College Board and ACT will tell you that I’m a pretty vocal and healthy critic if I have concerns, opinions, or questions about their policies, programs, and services.

As for test integrity, that is another red herring. Certainly the subject tests are offered as stand alone tests without affecting test integrity. And let us not forget that the SAT Writing test is almost the same test as the old Achievement Test in English. How is it that the same test is no longer valid as a stand alone test?

I didn’t speak to test integrity, validity, or reliability different topics for another time. I spoke specifically to concordance with the ACT composite. If a student crams for and only takes the SAT Critical Reading at one sitting and then the same for Math a few months later I don’t think that that CR+M total score should be considered as concordant to an ACT Comp taken in one sitting. Again, this may be a regional issue Big Ten universities have to be very concerned with concordance we each have thousands of applicants from all over the country many with only SAT and many with only ACT. Some of my colleagues elsewhere around the country who accept the ACT in lieu of required SAT Subject tests might disagree with me on this psychometric point. (Very few Midwest institutions require Subject Tests, so the topic seldom comes up here.)

Perhaps the weakest and I would argue bordering on ridiculous, rationale for the status quo is that 4 and 1/2 hours is somehow good for the character and that it helps our kids somehow experience some kind of global norm by going through this rigorous exam experience multiple times. Testing is not an inherent good, and is in fact, in most cases, a necessary evil. To subject students unnecessarily to excessive testing for no good reason other than that is serves as an international educational boot camp is a notion that I do not, and probably never will, understand.

I also do not believe that testing is an inherent good it has many limitations; but given the current disparities in grading systems and scales, how class rank is computed, grade inflation (its REAL!), curriculum and course availability variability, and even disparate opportunities for extracurricular opportunities among American high schools, standardized tests are the only common yard stick that admissions professionals have to take into consideration in our holistic reviews. (And although I do not plan to follow suit, I can respect institutions that truly believe that not requiring standardized tests will expand access to their schools. Somehow, however, large publics that do require test scores have been educating thousands of Pell Grant recipients for years.) I’m only saying, relatively speaking, that the pressure and time for American kids involved with testing associated with their future education is far less than experienced in other countries. I don’t think a 3-part SAT is particularly character-building, but nor do I think that it is particularly useless or harmful. What I do strongly believe is that there are far more serious and important educational issues that we all need to be addressing.

Scott White’s response:

I have to say this last post is quite reasonable. I don't see the ACT switching to a modular test so there issues of concordance, but I would really like to see some independent data about whether having a modular SAT would affect that. I understand that it may be a concern for some institutions. Most colleges out East, even large instititutions like yours, use the highest individual subscores when looking at SAT scores and the same could be done for the ACT. This would not be a terribly difficult technical challenge.

You make the exact same point that I made about 5 years ago about testing. I have run our state testing for 16 years and have been an SAT administrator for 25 and I spend SO much time preparing for these tests, as do the students, teachers, administrators and parents. Not to mention the huge amount of money to develop, distribute, score, etc. each state test. This is money that could be put back into the schools! It is absurd to have so many resources devoted to different tests and even more absurd that there are different state tests to assess the same skills. Combining both the state test with the college admissions test makes perfect sense.

I don't believe that the kids you speak of who only test once and late will be at a disadvantage due to modular testing. The rich or well counseled kids will still have the advantage of multiple sittings. The difference will just be that those kids will have to go through more testing than they need or desire, resulting in literally millions of dollars of wasted fees and millions of hours of truly wasted time.

I also agree totally with your conclusion: What I do strongly believe is that there are far more serious and important educational issues that we all need to be addressing. Unfortunately, there are many parents, students, administrators and legislators who think otherwise. The NCLB is forcing schools to do more and more testing and there is a point, and we have reached it, where it truly takes away in a substantial way, from instructional time. I believe most states are like NJ where students only have to re-take the parts of their exit exam they do not pass. No one is arguing that there is a problem with this. In fact, most would consider making the kid retake all sections unnecessary, overly costly and a waste of the student's time. Though there is no "pass" in college admissions testing, there is not a plus side for students of having them have to re-take all sections of the test. If the strongest reason for not making the test modular is the concordance with the ACT, then that is something that should be addressed on the post-secondary side.

Whether I like it or not, my bosses, the state of NJ, central office at our district, etc., put a huge emphasis on state testing thus it becomes important, in a realistic, logistical way (not a philosophical one) to me. In addition, the SAT takes on almost mythical status in my community. We are unusual, with a 50% white population that is overwhelmingly rich and a 50% black population, 1/3 of who are on free/reduced lunch. We do not really have the blue collar, lunch bucket crowd, so I cannot speak with authority on this sub-group (which I think you are referring to in your post). But testing is a major part of the life, whether I like it or not or believe it should be or not, of my students. If modular testing is one way to lessen the time, energy, cost and focus of testing, then I'm all for it. If I was convinced (and I am not now, but accept the possibility) that this would lead to more testing, then I would be the first to oppose it.

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