National Public Education
22Aug/110

Better College Admissions Tests

In most of the world, the way you get into college is to pass a test on what you have learned in high school.  Those who do well go on to the best colleges and often the best careers, and those who don't go on to something else.   This means that success in high school plays a clear role in the future success of the students.

Such a system helps the schools a great deal, since it gives the students a clear incentive to do well in school.   If the colleges are paying attention to how well you understand factoring and the subjunctive, you will, too.  If whether you do your French homework directly affects whether you will go to your favorite “name” school, you may well do it.  And if your teachers are not just people sent by your parents to annoy you, and make you “do your work,” but are actually the key people who can help you learn the material on this test, since they are the ones who actually know it, then you might listen to them quite carefully, and ask some good questions.  Having college admission tests based on the curricula of the schools makes the schools work much better than not having such tests.

In America, though, we have no such tests.  Instead we use the SAT test for college admissions which is purposely not a test of any school’s curricula.  The SAT, which was originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, measures  students’ ability to solve problems: their aptitude for scholarly work, not what they have learned in school.  The colleges were looking for another way, besides grades, to indicate which students could do well in college.  The SAT in effect tallies the students who have not done well in school, but still have the ability to do college work.  It is not so much a test of how well the students have done in school as a test of how well they may do in college.

Over the years many have complained that the SAT is harmful to schools and should be replaced by a test on curricula, but no changes have ever been made.  The reason for this is that the states have no way of bringing this about.   Some states have their own tests on their curricula, such as the New York State Regents, but there is no way to use this for college admission.  Obviously the colleges are not going to consult 50 different state tests.

Nor are the states able to formulate a test common to all, since there is no common curriculum among them, nor is there any organization that could coordinate such a move.  Each state is an autonomous entity fully in charge of its own schools and students.  There is no way to organize such joint action.  If one state were to try to start the process of changing to a different test by itself, the colleges, all of which take students from many different states, could easily ignore them, to the detriment of that state's students.

The obvious answer is a national system of education.  Then we would have a way to coordinate the various curricula of the states, and make a general test that reflected the work of the schools.  Once we changed to a national system, it would be perfectly natural to have a national admissions test, and to base this on school work, not aptitude.  This would bring improvements to the level of learning throughout the schools in this country.

The state-run system we have harms the schools.  It takes away from them a major incentive for their students to learn.  It is as if we set up a game for children and then told them that the “winner” would be the ones with the best colored shirts.  They wouldn’t play the game very well, then, would they?

All this is not the fault of the states, or the colleges, or even the SAT test itself, which is actually run quite well.  It is the fault of the system we use to organize public education in this country, a system that forces the schools to hand over control of college acceptance completely to the colleges, since no state or local district has the ability to organize it themselves.  There is no way to fix the problem except through a national school system.

Peter Dodington