Here’s Why We Don’t Use Test Scores in Rating Honors Programs

The following post is from site editor John Willingham.

In the aftermath of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal that included cheating on entrance exams, three social scientists recently weighed in on the continued importance of those same examinations, arguing that “No one likes the SAT” but “It’s still the fairest thing about admissions.”

“It has become a mantra in some quarters to assert that standardized tests measure wealth more than intellectual ability or academic potential, but this is not actually the case. These tests clearly assess verbal and mathematical skills, which a century of psychological science shows are not mere reflections of upbringing. Research has consistently found that ability tests like the SAT and the ACT are strongly predictive of success in college and beyond, even after accounting for a student’s socioeconomic status.”

For years, U.S. News has used test scores and selection rates as ranking data for the annual “Best Colleges” report. The publication has slightly reduced the impact of test scores in recent editions.

Below I will explain why we do not include test scores as a metric and argue that, for honors and non-honors students, other factors are more important in predicting success. (High school GPA is certainly a major factor; but since almost all honors students have high GPAs, I do not discuss the impact of GPA in this post.)

In their published scholarly work, the authors argue that test scores by themselves correlate very strongly ( r= -.892) with the annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings for national universities even though the test scores count for only 7.75 percent of the total ranking score. (The authors do not cite the impact of test scores on other ranking factors such as graduation and retention rates, which together account for 22 percent of the total ranking score.)

Our own work for the past eight years, however, shows that test scores do not have a similar correlation to quantitative assessments of honors programs. In our publications we list minimum and average admissions test scores for all programs we rate, but we do not count the scores alone as a rating factor.

Here’s why we do not use test scores as a measure: The factors that make for an excellent honors program are primarily structural. The major building blocks are the credits required for honors completion; the number of honors class sections offered, by type and academic discipline; the availability of priority registration and honors housing; the size of honors class sections; and the number of staff to assist students.

So, don’t the test scores drive the university graduation rates of honors program entrants, just as they do in elite colleges? The answer is not so much; the correlation is r= .50

Admittedly, it is probably difficult for a student with, say, a 1050 SAT score to succeed in an elite college or in most honors programs. But within a fairly large range of SAT scores (~1280-1510), the opportunities for success are more often present given a conducive structure. With every biannual review of honors data, I find great pleasure in discovering outstanding honors programs that are not housed in highly- ranked and extremely selective universities. The golden nuggets of excellence in higher education are scattered much farther and wider than many would have us believe.

I am strongly opposed to the numerical ranking of colleges or their honors programs, whether or not test scores are included in the methodology. I ranked honors program one time, in 2012, and regret doing so. Yes, I have data that allows me to numerically differentiate the total rating scores earned by honors programs. But anyone who wants to provide some kind of assessment of colleges or programs needs to do so with the assumption that their methodology is subjective and imperfect. Ordinal rankings based on distinctions of one point or fractions of a point give readers a veneer of certitude that a qualitative difference exists even if it (often) does not.

Although we do not rank honors programs, we do place them in one of five rating groups, a process that is similar to rating films on a five-star basis but based on quantitative rather than completely subjective data. The seven honors programs in the top group in 2018 (out of 41) had average SAT scores (enrolled students) ranging from 1280 to 1490, a sizable range.

Honors completion rates are something of an issue these days. An honors completion rate is the percentage of first year honors entrants who complete at least one honors program graduation requirement by the time of graduation from the university. About 42 percent of honors students do not complete honors requirements before graduation, although a very high percentage of honors entrants (87 percent) do graduate from the university.

The seven honors programs with honors completion rates of 75 percent or higher in our 2018 ratings had average SAT scores ranging from 1340 to 1510; the mean for this group was 1420. The mean SAT for the 31 (of 41) programs that provided completion rates was 1405, not much lower. And another seven programs with mean SAT scores of 1420 or higher had completion rates below 58 percent, the group mean.

The mean SAT score for all 41 rated programs was 1407; the mean SAT for the top seven programs was only one point higher at 1408.

It is clear, at least with respect to honors programs, that average SAT scores are not the best predictors of program effectiveness. What does this mean for the value of test scores nationwide, if anything?

I think it means that for students who are in the 1280 to 1500 SAT range, success depends as much or more on mentoring, smaller interdisciplinary sections, student engagement, course availability, community (including housing), and advising support than it does on test scores.

The good news here is that even for students who are not in honors programs, high levels of achievement are accessible to students who do not begin college with extremely high test scores, although non-honors students will probably have to assert themselves more in order to benefit from the strongest attributes of their university.

 

 

 

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Florida, Maryland, and Washington Will Soon Use Only the New Coalition App

Three prominent public universities–Florida, Maryland, and Washington–will begin using the application process developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (CAAS), a recently formed consortium of more than 90 leading public and private colleges and universities.

Our guess is that the three schools will opt for the new process in summer 2016.  (Note: the University of Washington never used the Common App previously.)

Note: A list of all public universities listed as CAAS members as of March 9, 2016, is below.

According to a Scott Jaschik article in Insider Higher Ed, member schools “are creating a platform for new online portfolios for high school students. The idea is to encourage ninth graders begin thinking more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school, to create new ways for college admissions officers, community organizations and others to coach them, and to help them emerge in their senior years with a body of work that can be used to help identify appropriate colleges and apply to them. Organizers of the new effort hope it will minimize some of the disadvantages faced by high school students without access to well-staffed guidance offices or private counselors.”

To qualify, as of now, for membership in the CAAS, a school must have a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent or higher. Several prominent public universities that qualify have not yet joined, among them all of the University of California institutions, UT Austin, and UW Madison.

Jaschik writes that the UC campuses have not joined because of present concerns about the ability of community college transfers to use the process effectively. UC schools have strong and highly successful articulation agreements with the state’s community colleges.

UT Austin questions the fairness of the new process, at least in its initial form. “Associate director of admissions Michael Orr said UT did not apply to the coalition because of criticisms of the programs, including the coalition’s failure to consult with high school counselors,” according to Jameson Pitts, writing for the Daily Texan. 

“The argument within the community … has been that there is a concern that students with means will be the ones that will be able to take advantage of that opportunity the most,” Orr said. He did not rule out the possibility of joining the Coalition if concerns about fairness can be resolved.

Several voices in the higher ed community have opposed the Coalition, saying that students are already over-focused on preparing for college admission and that the new approach will favor more privileged students.

Our question is this: If the new process is designed to help students who cannot afford college counselors and lack effective guidance in their schools, how will the students find out about the process in the first place and learn to use it to good effect?

Whatever the possible shortcomings may be, the CAAS has gained the membership so far of the 36 public universities listed below. It is important to note that only Florida, Maryland, and Washington have decided to use the CAAS process exclusively. The other schools listed below will, as of this date, use either the Common App or the CAAS process.

Clemson
College of New Jersey
Connecticut
Florida
Georgia
Georgia Tech
Illinois
Illinois St
Indiana
Iowa
James Madison
Mary Washington
Maryland
Miami Ohio
Michigan
Michigan St
Minnesota
Missouri
New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Ohio St
Penn State
Pitt
Purdue
Rutgers
South Carolina
SUNY Binghamton
SUNY Buffalo
SUNY Geneseo
Texas A&M
Vermont
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Washington
William and Mary

New Coalition for Access and Affordability: A Revolution in Admissions?

The Coalition for Access and Affordability is a new group of 80-plus colleges and universities, all with six-year grad rates of 70 percent and higher, and all apparently committed to transforming the admissions process at high-profile institutions. Among the members are all Ivy League schools, top liberal arts colleges, and many leading public universities. So far, the UC System and the UT System are not listed as members.

Note: A link showing coalition members is at the end of this post.

What exactly all of this means for the Common App is uncertain. For now, it appears that coalition members will use it.

“What the emergence of a new rival might mean for the Common Application could become an intriguing storyline over the next few years,” the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports. The standardized admissions form used by more than 600 colleges worldwide has long dominated the college-admissions realm.

“But it’s raising the college-access flag, too. Recently, the organization bolstered the college-planning resources for students on its website, including information specifically for middle-school students and ninth graders. ‘It’s planning to roll out ‘virtual counselor’ materials, including articles and videos that answer specific questions about the application process,” said Aba G. Blankson, director of communications for the Common Application.”

Questions remain about the mission and intentions of the coalition. One dean of admissions told the Chronicle of Higher Ed that “I’m not convinced about the true intentions of the coalition. The schools participating in this effort should not mask their intentions on the guise of ‘access.’ It’s a deceiving marketing ploy… ”

As usual, Nancy Griesemer, writing for the Washington Examiner, has written an excellent post on the hot topic.

“In a nutshell,” she writes, “the Coalition is developing a free platform of online college planning and application tools. The tools will include a digital portfolio, a collaboration platform, and an application portal.

“High school students will be encouraged to add to their online portfolios beginning in the ninth grade examples of their best work, short essays, descriptions of extracurricular activities, videos, etc. Students could opt to share or not share all or part of their portfolios with college admissions or counseling staff and ‘community mentors.'” [Emphasis added.]

The planning site and portfolio portals are supposed to be open to high school students in January 2016, and the supposition is that coalition members will be using the data then.

“Billed as a system designed to have students think more deeply about what they are learning or accomplishing in high school by the development of online portfolios, the new endeavor will actually create efficient ways for college admissions officers to access more detailed information about prospective applicants earlier in the game,” Griesemer writes.

“The coalition application is an interesting concept, but begs the question of who will benefit more from the information-sharing plan—high school students or colleges. And while the plan is promoted as helping students—particularly disadvantaged students—to present themselves to colleges in a more robust manner, it seems likely that students able to afford early college coaching may actually benefit quite a bit from being able to post their accomplishments on a platform viewed and commented on by admissions staff.” [Emphasis added.]

Here is a link showing coalition members as of this date.

Honors News: August 20, 2015–Is Class Rank a Disappearing Metric?

Of great importance to college applicants in some states (Texas, especially) high school class rank is of paramount importance. Texas high school grads ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes (top 7% at UT Austin for 2015) gain automatic acceptance to state schools, with UT Austin capping automatic admissions at 75% of the total freshman class.

According to the National Association of College Admissions C0unselors (NACAC), only 15% of colleges now consider class rank on its own to be of “considerable importance.”

“It’s disappearing as a metric,” says Lee Coffin, a NACAC member and dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts.

NACAC reports that “a student’s grades in college-prep classes is considered the top factor in college admission decisions, followed by the strength of their curriculum, test scores and overall grade-point average, data show.

“The shift away from class rank is related, in part, to the widespread adoption of weighted grades for students who take honors or advanced classes.

“High school officials ‘want students to focus on their own accomplishments without worrying so much where they fall in the pecking order,’ writes reporter Moriah Balingit of the Washington Post. ‘And with the proliferation of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses — which can boost a student’s grade-point average above a 4.0 — emphasizing rank could push students to overload themselves during their high school years.'”

In the case of UC Berkeley, students who are in the top 9% of statewide high school grads, or in the top 9% of their own high school class, meet only a basic threshold for admission. They must still met the “holistic” requirements of UC Berkeley, which include the following:

    • Your weighted and unweighted grade point average (calculated using 10th and 11th grade UC-approved courses only)
    • Your planned 12th grade courses
    • Your pattern of grades over time
    • The number of college preparatory, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), honors and transferable college courses you have completed
    • Your level of achievement in those courses relative to other UC applicants at your school
    • Your scores on AP or IB exams
    • Your scores on the ACT plus writing or the SAT reasoning test.

These additional requirements go a long way toward ensuring that UC Berkeley students in the top 9% also have other credentials that point toward high academic achievement, especially success with rigorous courses (AP, etc).

Using an automatic percentage as the basis for admission absent additional requirements that evaluate the real academic quality of high school courses is problematic.

One reason is that it encourages some students to transfer to a high school with easier classes and less competition in order to improve class standing.

Another reason is that the test scores of students admitted via automatic admission are somewhat lower; in the case of UT Austin, automatic admits averaged 28 on the ACT, while holistic admits had an average ACT of 30.

The result is a sense of unfairness among students who have completed rigorous coursework at more competitive high schools, made excellent grades, earned high test scores, but not quite made it to the top 10%, or 7% in the case of UT Austin. (UT Austin will admit the top 8% in 2016.)

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

Once Again, The New Republic Weighs in on the Ivies, and Here’s our Response

Once again, The New Republic  is featuring an article that discusses the pros and cons of an Ivy League education.  This time, the article comes in the form of a review of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

In the TNR review, called “It Doesn’t Matter if Your Kid Doesn’t Get into Harvard,” author Nick Romeo claims that Bruni is too focused on the ability of college grads from non-Ivy institutions to achieve material success on a par with Ivy grads.

“He’s not asking his readers to examine a cultural obsession with success, so much as assuring them that they can still impress others without attending highly selective undergraduate institutions,” Romeo writes. “Just look at all the people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms, he says. Not all of them went to Ivy League schools! There are ‘myriad routes to a corner office,’ as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.”

Romeo prefers the earlier challenge to Ivy education published in TNR: William Deresiewicz’s now famous article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” which appeared on July 21, 2014, and has now been “shared” more than 200,000 times.  Deresiewwicz’s article argues that many less elite schools, such as public flagships, allow bright students more latitude to discover themselves in the midst of fellow students who are not all driven or overly-focused on channeling their lives toward one thing: an Ivy admission.

The fact is that college at its best is not an either/or proposition that pits learning for its own sake against training for a career.  In almost every college in the nation there are at least three broad types of students–those who are in alive with self-discovery and intellectual excitement, those who want to get out in a hurry and find a high-paying job, and many others who are open to intellectual expansion but are acutely aware that the “real world” awaits.

The subtitle of Bruni’s  book is “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”  But Nick Romeo argues that what Bruni describes “is not a bracing cure; it’s a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige.”

We see Bruni’s book as less an antidote than a balancing argument to the one proposed by Deresiewicz.  While many smart “kids” do and should value intellectual stimulation, they and their parents need to be practical as well.  If Bruni over-emphasizes the “antidote” of achieving career success equivalent to that of Ivy grads without attending an Ivy school, his message is one that parents and prospective students need to hear.

As we have noted many times, there are far more bright students than there are places at Ivy institutions, and these bright students should be able to find, and should know that they can find, both intellectual and career equivalence at colleges outside the Ivy League, including public honors colleges and programs.

It is well known that admission to any highly selective college can be capricious, subjective, and even approach the formulaic.  Ivy colleges are wonderful, in most cases, for students who are both brilliant and fortunate.   Students who are “merely” brilliant at one brief point of their lives need to know that the rest of their lives can be as fulfilling in all ways as the lives of their more fortunate counterparts.