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Should All Public Universities In Illinois Stop Requiring Standardized Test Scores?

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WOSU Public Media

A number of universities in Illinois didn’t require standardized test scores when students applied for the upcoming fall semester given the disruption COVID-19 had on high schools.

One state lawmaker is looking to extend this policy indefinitely for all public universities throughout the state.

State Rep. LaToya Greenwood (D-East St. Louis) said the inspiration for her proposal, HB 226 , was watching her son applying to colleges last year.

Greenwood said for many Illinois students, including her son, the scores they receive on standardized tests do not holistically represent their level of intelligence, nor their ability to handle college-level work.

By requiring SAT and ACT test scores as a part of the undergraduate admissions process, Greenwood said it acts as a barrier to postsecondary education and can even discourage students from applying at all.

“I just felt like there were more students like [my son],” Greenwood said. “The admissions process needs to be reflective of the whole student and not just focus on one aspect of the student.”

In addition to students who experience test anxiety, Greenwood said an overreliance on standardized test scores can disadvantage groups of students, including those who attend low-income schools or students who do not have regular access to broadband internet.

But Dr. Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, says throwing standardized tests to the wayside may not be the best path forward.

Koretz, who researches educational assessments and high stakes testing policies, said it’s important to frame the discussion around the quality of education students receive in K-12 schools as opposed to claiming standardized tests scores pose a bias in the admissions process.

“There are people who say, ‘Well, higher [socioeconomic status] kids have higher scores, so they're more likely to get in,’” Koretz said. “That's true; higher SES kids also go to better high schools. But that doesn't mean [standardized test scores] don't predict.”

Koretz said research indicating standardized test scores give admissions officers biased assumptions isn’t terribly strong.

“If you look at whether disadvantaged kids do better in college than their test scores predict, the answer is on average, no, they don't,” Koretz said “That doesn't mean there aren’t cases where it's biased, but there isn't evidence that it's biased wholesale.”

Koretz said one purpose of achievement tests like the SAT and ACT is to assess a student’s level of understanding of content and skills they hopefully learned in their K-12 education in order to determine their ability to master college-level work. Another advantage, Koretz said, is using a universal metric that can evaluate scores from millions of students from across the country.

“High school grading standards are quite inconsistent. That's why some admissions officers want test scores, because there are 13,000 school districts in the United States,” Koretz said. “If you’re getting applications from, let's say, 7,500 high schools around the country, you have no way of knowing whether a 3.5 from high school ‘A’ means the same thing as the 3.5 from high school ‘B’.”

However, Koretz also notes although a student may be able to demonstrate through a high standardized test score that they are capable of taking a college-level math or science course, it does not necessarily mean the student is “college ready”.

Koretz said it’s important for college admissions officers to be able to determine whether a student applicant will be able to succeed once they come to campus, and hopefully stay enrolled.

Some institutions — like the University of California system which has questioned the effectiveness of standardized test scores for at least two decades — are advocating for the development of new assessments that not only measure a student’s understanding of linguistic and logical skills, but also creative thinking and multiple intelligences.

Last May, the University of California system decided to go test-optional and is in the process of designing a new college entrance test. If the system is unable to develop and adopt a new assessment by the 2025-2026 school year, standardized test scores will be eliminated entirely from the admissions process.

Some colleges in Illinois have already adopted a test-optional policy, including Southern Illinois University and the University of Chicago.

Meera Komarraju, the provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs at SIU Carbondale, said one reason her school decided to go test-optional was a recognition that some applicants have greater advantages when taking standardized tests compared to others, such as access to study guides or expensive tutors.

“By going test-optional, I think we are reducing the equity gaps and increasing the accessibility of a public education to a larger portion of the citizens,” Komarraju said.

Although the university still sees value in standardized test scores, they also find merit in evaluating non-test factors like a student’s GPA or their involvement in extracurricular activities.

Komarraju said SIU isn’t concerned its decision to go test-optional will negatively affect their ranking by U.S. News and World Report, and that they have consistently received praise from high school counselors.

“There are so many criteria that influence your ranking in U.S. News and World Report,” Komarraju said. “I think that one of those variables is your retention and your graduation rate. And I think that we already looked at the data before we made this decision. So we are not worried about that. ”

If passed in current form, Rep. Greenwood’s proposal would become effective on Jan. 1. Because there may be students who plan to send in standardized test scores this year in preparation for the Fall 2022 semester — students who perhaps wouldn’t do so if they knew they had an option — Greenwood said some universities may need to start adapting to the new policy ahead of the effective date, if the bill is signed into law.

Although Greenwood’s proposal would make submitting standardized test scores optional for college admissions, high school students would still be required to take assessments like the SAT for graduation purposes.

In December 2015, former President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act. This new federal education measure replaced the No Child Left Behind model enacted by former President George W. Bush.

Included in the federal mandates outlined in ESSA was a provision which allowed state governments to use college entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT, as their federal accountability requirement for high schools.

Since 2017, Illinois has used the SAT as its federal accountability assessment for high school juniors and seniors. Additionally, the state has also decided to administer the P-SAT exam to high school freshmen and sophomores since 2019. A school's failure to administer said tests could jeopardize access to federal funding, such as Title I dollars.

“In addition to the administration of the SAT being a federal accountability requirement for districts, taking the SAT is also a statutory graduation requirement for all Illinois public school students,” Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said. “If a district did not administer the SAT, they would be putting their students’ ability to receive a high school diploma at risk.”

ISBE attempted to receive a test waiver this year from the U.S. Department of Education given the difficulties created by pandemic-necessitated distance learning. Although a similar waiver was granted in spring 2020, the Biden Administration has decided certain standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, will still be required this spring.

ISBE has requested a separate accountability waiver from the Education Department which would allow schools to not be negatively affected by potentially low test scores.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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