Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Death Knell for the SAT?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve likely read a lot about changes to the SAT already, so let me just cut to the chase by raising two points, and you can decide if you want to read the rest of this column, or pursue the perfect cup of hot chocolate instead.
  1. It’s likely these changes will accelerate the death of the SAT.
  2. If you’re looking for game-changing college admission announcements, tune in around 10 AM Eastern today (Thursday the 27th) for a blockbuster that has nothing to do with testing. That’s all I can say.
OK—so, on with the SAT talk. A brief review of the changes, taken largely from testing guru Adam Ingersoll (and if you don’t follow him, you should—clear, thoughtful, engaging):
  • These changes will affect 9th graders—everyone else is safe;
  • The test will be online, but students still have to go to testing centers to take them. Students can use their own computers, or those at the center;
  • The test is now two hours long, not three;
  • Reading passages are just one paragraph, and will have only one question to answer;
  • Students can use a calculator on every math problem;
  • Students will get their scores back in a matter of days, not weeks;
  • Each topic will be divided into two sections, where the questions the student gets in the second section depends on how well they do in the first section;
  • Plans to create a chart converting new SAT scores to old SAT scores, and new SAT scores to ACT scores, are still up in the air.
These last two points are the real head-turners. If the content of the second part of each Math exam is based on how well the student does on the first exam, how is it possible to use scores as a point of comparison across students? Past SATs have had different versions, but they were basically at the same level of difficulty. This new approach means the difficulty of different test versions will be vastly different—so how can colleges effectively sort out one score of 540 from another?

The problem gets worse if efforts to create conversion charts bog down. The SAT has been updated in the past, but each update came with a way to compare new test scores to old test scores. If the new test isn’t of uniform difficulty, how exactly do you do that—and what does that mean to colleges, where consistency of scores is, for better or worse, an anchor of many evaluation processes?

These last two reasons could form the basis of several actions, none of them beneficial to SAT:
  • A migration to the ACT. The number of students taking ACT always goes up when a new version of the SAT premieres. Given all the changes this new version is touting, that transition is likely to be greater than ever before—and may lead some colleges to go back to preferring ACT.
  • Colleges using the new version as a reason to remain test optional. Since two scores on the new SAT represent different levels of knowledge, how can colleges compare test results across students with any integrity? Right now, this sounds like comparing apples to oranges.
Many details remain to be ironed out, but the early responses leave many wondering just what’s in it for the students, other than a shorter test, and what’s in it for the colleges, period. That last point needs to be made clear soon, or the future of the SAT may be far from what its thought leaders are hoping for.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Next Letter You Need to Write

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We need to face a hard truth. Year in and year out, counselors keep wanting the college application process to change—fix this, drop that. I talk about this as much (if not more) than anyone else, and like anyone else, I really thought we were heading in the right direction when so many colleges became test optional. There were so many promises of revamping the entire process, not just dropping test scores.

Where are we now? A new breed of “coaches” has come up offering advice on when to send scores, and articles are popping up everywhere claiming colleges didn’t go test optional to help the students, as much as they did so to prop up their average test scores.

It’s been argued that every single part of the college application process favors the wealthy, and many have tried to come up with a system where that doesn’t happen. This is harder than it looks. If colleges dropped every single admissions requirement they had today and replaced it with one factor—grades, eye color, push-ups—a new genre of coaches would show up to help students game the system using the new criteria. Yes, there are ways to make the system more fair, but as test optional shows, the odds of creating a system that’s truly fair are pretty slim, at least for now.

So what can we do? Every year, hundreds—yes, hundreds—of new school counselors emerge into the market place with absolutely no working knowledge of college counseling. Most received no training in college counseling because their graduate program didn’t offer any, focusing almost exclusively on the mental health aspect of school counseling. Those that had some training had it in a few hours of a course on college and career counseling, where the emphasis is always more on careers. The skills needed to get a meaningful job are important, to be sure, but once a student realizes they need more training after high school, what becomes just as important? College counseling.

It’s easy enough for folks like me to secure this college knowledge once we’re on the job, because I generally worked at schools where students were already expected to go to college—so off I went to every workshop that taught me how to help them. That only maintains a status quo that is awfully biased, and just plain awful. The counselors who really need that training can’t get out of their building, in part because the caseloads are too high, in part because their administrators don’t think it matters—and counselors don’t have the training to be able to explain why it does. But this misses the larger point—why are we learning the job on the job, when graduate school training in mental health runs into the hundreds of hours, and college counseling training is, as a rule, zero?

The answer is easy—a three-credit graduate course in college counseling. The courses exist, and the syllabi are easy enough to find (Need one? Email me!), so starting one up isn’t hard, provided the educators running counselor training programs are prepared to admit that college is as important as mental health. This isn’t about program certifications or some other credential; this is about helping students build meaningful futures, which is why we all got into this business. A letter to your grad school pointing that out couldn’t be more timely, so we can end a bias that’s killing lots of bright futures.

Year in and year out, counselors keep wanting the college application process to change. What really needs to change is counselors.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Torts Are Killing College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Some very busy college admission offices are having to add another activity to their January To Do list—going to court. A lawsuit was announced this week alleging some of the nation’s best-known colleges have been colluding to limit financial aid awards to certain applicants. According to the suit, this affected some 170,000 students in the past 20 years, and many of the colleges involved had been named in previous lawsuits alleging collusion.

That last point shouldn’t be overlooked, and could work to the advantage of the colleges. If they already had some legal run-ins with the information they shared with other colleges, you’d think they’d be extra careful not to do it again, since second-time offenders are treated less daintily by the justice system. No college has said that, but quotes from the colleges involved clearly suggest they’ve kept a close eye on what they are and aren’t sharing. Assuming they mean what they say, that could set the stage for some kind of settlement, which would be to everyone’s advantage—especially the profession of college admissions as a whole.

On the other hand, this new lawsuit has already caused damage to the name of college admissions. Combined with the court trials currently going on with affirmative action (hello US Supreme Court) and the legal sideshow provided by the Varsity Blues scandal, the last thing college admissions needs is one more procedural element being adjudicated through the justice system—and yet, here we are.

If this keeps up, one can only wonder what’s next—and it doesn’t take much imagination to find the likely targets. The Justice Department didn’t have any issues with Early Decision when they threw out a number of long-held admission practices two years ago, but that doesn’t mean the legal landscape is now barren. If the right ED candidate changes their mind and loses out on the real college of their choice, a lawsuit claiming restraint of trade isn’t all that far away—and even if it’s unsuccessful, it’s one more round of lawyers, publicity, and public questioning of the motives and integrity of the admissions process.

The real shame with these forays into the legal system lies in two areas. It’s certainly true most colleges don’t have to worry about the influence of million-dollar donors, and most colleges aren’t part of a financial aid-sharing consortium. But any savvy admissions office has to see these events and wonder how much scrutiny they are going to lend to any changes they might make in the admissions process. Something as benign as a change in a deadline date could make some reporter eager for admissions fame try to create a problem that doesn’t exist, fueled by the public’s appetite for college admissions gossip. Once the media has you looking over your shoulder, autonomy in the admissions workplace becomes stilted.

This lawsuit is also a problem because it serves as another example of a media-obsessed issue involving a handful of schools serving a small percentage of America’s college students. 170,000 students boils down to about 400 students per involved institution per year. It’s hard to imagine the same media furor being raised over a similar story involving 10 colleges in the rural Midwest that serve far more students—but since the colleges involved are the darlings of mainstream media, the issue is grabbing headlines.

We have far to go in giving the public the information they need to really understand what college admissions is all about. One more story about the Big 25 isn’t really going to help that effort, and that’s what we have here.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Year That Was, Is, and Will Be

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

For school counselors, December break is a little like halftime. While many schools won’t see the semester end until January, schedule changes and midyear grade reports prevent that cherished time from being a chance to look at the big picture—so it needs to happen now.

With that in mind, let’s see what the year has brought to date, and what we can expect in the next few months.

COVID Part 86 The thing we were sure would be over last June is sticking with us closer than the sap of a Christmas tree on your best pair of gloves. Kowtowing to cultural demands to fulfill its role as primary child care provider, schools are once again failing to do what they’ve had several chances to achieve—provide serious training to educators for meaningful online learning—and are instead closing schools on a totally random basis. The result? COVID numbers are higher than ever, many colleges are back to starting (or being) online, and high school students once again get to get up every morning to discover what version of education they will be subjected to that day. Advanced planning could have saved us from all this; expect more confusion to come through May, when the Delta virus is scheduled to finally die down.

Test optional applications with self-reporting grades What started out as two steps designed to make applying to college easier are taking on lives of their own, much like Aunt Gladys’ fruitcake. Volumes of articles exist on how to build a successful “test optional strategy”, largely crafted by test prep tutors who are either drumming up business or trying to create a new one, adding one more piece to the labyrinth of college applications.

The same seems to be happening with self-reporting grades, where students are devoting hours to recording the same set of grades in one application after another. The end result? Two activities designed to make college more accessible have been gobbled up by the college industrial complex, bringing into question all those cries to “think about the kids” in the application process. A few earnest souls are still convinced there are ways to simplify the process, and are clinging to these two components as ways it can happen. Something’s got to give here; stay tuned.

Early Business as Usual Advocates for the status quo are taking comfort in the strong number of students applying Early Action or Early Decision to colleges, as well as the number of colleges adding a round of Early Decision 2 this year. Early programs provide peace of mind to the students admitted by them, but the real winner in Early programs are the colleges, since strong Early numbers lend stability to their financial aid numbers and their bottom line. Rumors of the demise of Early programs are greatly exaggerated. It will take armloads of students reneging on their Early commitments for colleges to lose their appetite for this enrollment machine, and that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

May 1? What’s That? A lesser-known trend showing up this year is the increase in colleges asking for some kind of commitment from students well before the traditional date of May 1. Once the gold standard in our profession, May 1 was seen as a restraint of trade by the Justice Department, and while many colleges are still sticking to that date, more and more are offering scholarship and housing incentives to students willing to commit sooner, while other colleges are simply giving students a tight deadline to deposit, or risk losing their offer of admission. Watch this carefully.