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Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1999. Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9632.
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Executive Summary

College admissions in the United States is both complex and extremely important. The nation prides itself on the provision of public education for all students, and that commitment has been one of the keys to its success as a democracy. College is increasingly seen as a necessary ingredient in the preparation of students for success in a society that requires of its workers both sophisticated skills and the flexibility to adapt quickly to change. Degrees from elite institutions remain the best means of entry into elite, powerful, profitable, and interesting careers. Under these circumstances, it is more important than ever that the college admissions system be both fair and open. Test scores play a role at a number of points in this system: in some cases that role is an intentional and useful one; in others it is an unintended and potentially counterproductive one. Nevertheless, the benefits of tests are clear and lead to our basic conclusions:

  • The U.S. educational system is characterized by variety. Public, private, and parochial schools each apply their own standards, and public schools are controlled locally, not nationally. Curricula, grading standards, and course content vary enormously. In such a system, standardized tests are an efficient source of comparative information for which there is currently no substitute.
  • Standardized tests can be provided at a relatively low cost to students and offer valuable efficiencies to institutions that must review thousands of applications.
  • Standardized tests provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate talent. For students whose academic records are not particularly strong, a high score can lead admissions officers to consider acceptance for a student who would otherwise be rejected.

Yet tests are not always used as they should be. We offer four recommendations to institutions of higher education and one to test producers:

  • Admissions policies and practices should be derived from and clearly linked to an institution's overarching intellectual and other goals.
  • The use of test scores in the admissions process should serve those institutional goals.
Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1999. Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9632.
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  • The admissions policies themselves, and their relationship to the institution's goals, should be clearly articulated for the public, so that students can make informed decisions about whether to apply.
  • Colleges and universities should review their uses of test scores in the admissions process and, if necessary, take steps to eliminate misuses of scores. Specifically, institutions should avoid treating scores as more precise and accurate measures than they are and should not rely on them for fine distinctions among applicants.
  • Test producers should intensify their efforts to make clear—both in score reports and in documents intended for students, parents, counselors, admissions officers, and the public—the limits to the information that scores supply. This could be done by supplementing the interpretive material currently supplied with clear descriptions and representations—accessible to a lay audience—of such points as the significance of the standard error and the fact that the score is a point on a range of possible scores; the accuracy with which a score can predict future academic performance (in terms of the probability that a student would achieve a particular grade point average, for example); and the significance of score differences.

While these recommendations are modest, it is the committee's hope that they will be of use as the education and legal communities struggle to address the vexing issues surrounding college admissions in the United States.

Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1999. Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9632.
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Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Research Council. 1999. Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9632.
×
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More than 8 million students enrolled in 4-year, degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States in 1996. The multifaceted system through which these students applied to and were selected by the approximately 2,240 institutions in which they enrolled is complex, to say the least; for students, parents, and advisers, it is often stressful and sometimes bewildering. This process raises important questions about the social goals that underlie the sorting of students, and it has been the subject of considerable controversy.

The role of standardized tests in this sorting process has been one of the principal flashpoints in discussions of its fairness. Tests have been cited as the chief evidence of unfairness in lawsuits over admissions decisions, criticized as biased against minorities and women, and blamed for the fierce competitiveness of the process. Yet tests have also been praised for their value in providing a common yardstick for comparing students from diverse schools with different grading standards.

Myths and Tradeoffs identifies and corrects some persistent myths about standardized admissions tests and highlight some of the specific tradeoffs that decisions about the uses of tests entail; presents conclusions and recommendations about the role of tests in college admissions; and lays out several issues about which information would clearly help decision makers, but about which the existing data are either insufficient or need synthesis and interpretation. This report will benefit a broad audience of college and university officials, state and other officials and lawmakers, and others who are wrestling with decisions about admissions policies, definitions of merit, legal actions, and other issues.

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