One of the staples of higher education is the standardized entrance exam; yet, increasingly, the question being asked is: Why? High school students are frequently reminded that they must do well on the ACT test or the SAT test. Students who want to go to college often buy study aids and attend special workshops to prepare for the exam; a lot of time, money, and anxiety are spent in preparation for that one score.
For older students, there is perhaps even more anxiety as the average online college student has been out of school for about 16 years. Some of these students may not only attend workshops and buy study materials, but they also may take semester long courses to review core subject areas like math and writing. Again, a lot of time, money, and energy are invested.
Even students who prove by completing a bachelor’s degree successfully that they are college ready must take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in order to apply to most graduate programs. This test is broken down into a general subject test and eight subject area tests; depending on a students’ desired major, they may have to complete both the general exam and a subject specific test.
The original intent of these tests was to help make sure students were ready for college level work at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Colleges also use the scores to determine the level of student they wish to admit; for example, potential students may have to score above a certain number or percentage to be admitted to a certain university. The basic thought is that scoring students against one another gives a good indicator of how they will do in college.
Increasingly, the logic behind these tests is being questioned. Is it time to dump the college entrance exam? Here is a summation of the main arguments made.
Are we losing potential students?
For some students, entrance exams are so costly, they may not even attempt to go to college. The least expensive part of taking an entrance exam is monetary. The ACT, for instance, is $34.00 if a student registers on time, and this fee includes sending the results to his/her high school and four colleges. However, the cost increases if students register late, need to send the results to more than four schools, have to retake the test to get a higher score, buy study materials, take preparation classes, etc.
Then there’s the time and energy cost. Students who truly want to do well and to attend the school of their choice will probably set aside hours of study and review time that they can not devote to other activities like earning money for tuition. Non-traditional students may need to sacrifice time with family in addition to work hours.
Thirdly, there’s the anxiety factor: Some students become so nervous about these entrance exams and all that is riding on them, that they become mentally and physically incapacitated in some way. Test anxiety is more than just an excuse; it is a real psychological condition that may even elicit a flight response. Keep in mind that potential students who are still in high school, and even older returning adults who have been out of school for some time, are already intimidated enough about the unknown world of higher education and all of its requirements. They do not have the experience yet in the world of academia to deal with these additional challenges. For some, it may be easier not to try.
Are the tests an accurate measure of potential?
Given test anxiety and all the other variables that may affect a student’s performance on a standardized exam, the question of entrance exams being an accurate predictor of student success has been raised. If the work and life experiences of the growing numbers of non-traditional students are considered, are they not perhaps more valuable than an entrance exam could show? For example, if someone spent 16 years after high school working as an auditor for a large hotel and then in a position as a bookkeeper, wouldn’t that be a more accurate predictor of future academic success if this same student applied to an accounting program than a general test like the ACT or SAT? An increasing number of postsecondary institutions—about one-third of them, in fact—either no longer require entrance exams or have made them optional because they have not found them accurate in predicting student success.
Are the tests even necessary?
The final major criticism of standardized entrance exams is that they are no longer needed. Charles Murray presented an eloquent argument a few years ago that the SAT, for example, was no more accurate in predicting student success than the achievement test results or grade point averages of high school students (July/August 2007). Furthermore, he details the ways in which the test is culturally biased in some ways; it’s not meeting the “democratizing purpose” as originally intended.
Dr. Melissa A. Venable points out that these tests are also not designed to predict the success of online learners; as a proactive solution, she provides a long list of better indicators that recent research has provided. These include not only ways students may demonstrate they have the basic skills in areas like writing, math, and technology, but also the proactive assistance the schools themselves can provide (e.g., college preparation courses and workshops) that have proven more successful in not only predicting future success, but also in helping to insure a more favorable outcome for students (28 February 2012).
Although perhaps more discussion is needed on this issue, it seems clear that colleges and universities would be smart to at least make standardized entrance exams optional in the best interest of potential students and to explore some of the other options available, especially for potential online students. It clearly is time to dump the college entrance exam.
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