ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand. Here at Day to Day, we've launched a series on education and some of the more controversial issues. Homework was a big one, and another big one, whether a big-name school is important when it comes to getting a job. Well, today, we'll take a look at the college admissions tests, the SAT and the ACT, and whether they should be scrapped.
First, we wanted to hear from high school students and their parents. On Tuesday, Palisades Charter High School, that's near Los Angeles, held a college fair, and producer Kim Ann Sung (ph) went to the fair to find out how students and parents are preparing for a big part of their college admissions process, the SAT.
Ms. SUMMER WHEATON (Student): I took a lot of SAT prep courses. Also, I took different classes at my church to prep classes. And then also, I had a private SAT coach.
KIM ANN SUNG: How did you get ready for those tests?
Ms. WHEATON: Well, I basically use, like, cram books, the "Princeton Review," the good one, like, just basically go to the library and find cram books on SATs and PSATs, go over them 5,000 times, and like study as hard as I can, I guess.
Mr. MICHAEL PALADINO (Student): I plan to study my buns off, and I plan to get like a tutor to help me with SAT-like questions.
SUNG: And you look at your mom because?
Mr. PALADINO: Because...
Ms. CAROL PALADINO: Because she's going to pay for it.
Mr. PALADINO: She's going to pay for it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PALADINO: Yeah, you know, my daughter went through this whole process. She's a sophomore at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and we did go through the test prep with "Princeton Review" and found it incredibly helpful. The whole process is so mind boggling, you, know, and the competition is fierce so...
SUNG: Just as much as the test prep is concerned, how much did you pay for your daughter?
Ms. PALADINO: I think it was around $3,000.
Ms. SUSANNA MARROW KEEN: No matter what, I'm wearing the same jeans every day to pay tutoring...
SUNG: So you wear the same jeans all the time to pay for your daughter's tutoring?
Ms. KEEN: Yeah, it's really important for me, so she can get good grades and try to go in good university.
BRAND: The voices of parents Susanna Marrow Keen (ph) and Carol Paladino (ph). Also in there, high school students Michael Paladino (ph), Henecy Marrow Keen (ph), and Summer Wheaton (ph).
Some of their applications? Well, they may come across the desk of Phillip Ballinger. He's director of admissions at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he was part of a group of some of the country's most influential college admissions officials that issued a study critical of those tests, those tests that the students are cramming for right now. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. PHILLIP BALLINGER (Director of Admissions, University Of Washington - Seattle): Hello.
BRAND: Now, I understand many schools have already made these tests optional for aspiring students, and that that is one of the recommendations from the study, that colleges and universities considered doing that, making the test optional. What about at your university? Do you do that?
Mr. BALLINGER: No, we don't now. The recommendation of the commission was that universities need to do their own research and to be able to understand clearly the benefit, if any, of using the tests for admissions and other purposes. And if there really wasn't or isn't any benefit, and when I'm talking about benefit, I'm talking about benefit to students, ultimately, then we ask them to consider dropping the use of the test. For most universities, for many universities, and I think this is particularly true for large universities, the test actually is helpful, but only if it's used in broad context, you know. The test scores can be used well in what's called a comprehensive review of a student, but not in some kind of mathematical formula.
BRAND: Isn't there an argument, though, that admissions officers such as yourself, they need some kind of objective criteria, and the SAT provides a good one because students all over the country have to take the same test, and it's a good way to say, well, student A is better than student B, and I'd rather have that student?
Mr. BALLINGER: Well, yes on the first part and no on the second, I guess. They do offer a way to contextualize grade point averages from different high schools. The tests are good tests. They do what they're meant to do. And so we didn't have any argument about the purpose of the test. Our main issue was, are the tests being misused, and is there too much emphasis on the test.
BRAND: How do you direct the people in your office to take that into account?
Mr. BALLINGER: Well, we're not one of the universities that places a huge stress on the test. We find them helpful, but they're nowhere near as helpful as understanding fully the courses a student has taken, the grades a student has achieved in those courses, what opportunities a student had in their particular high school and what advantage they took of those opportunities, what kind of background the student comes from in terms of college going; are they first generation student? Do they come from a low income family? All these things have to be thrown into the mix in a selective college process.
BRAND: This report that you were a part of and this commission has some advice for college admissions officers in terms of valuing the SAT and the ACT tests. What about for parents and students? What advice would you give them?
Mr. BALLINGER: Well, one of the points of advice I would make is not in the report, but I think it kind of heads down this path, is it gives high school counselors, college counselors permission, so to speak, to hopefully start allaying some of the anxiety around the test. So, for example, the college board itself will tell you that there is little added benefit to taking the SAT more than twice. And yet, you have students, because of this sense of anxiety and urgency, taking the test three, four, or five or more times. Honestly, for most students out there, there would have to be a pretty serious reason to take this test more than twice.
And the other question we invite students and parents and counselors to reflect upon together is, you know, what is test prep? What is the value? I know what the perceived value is, but if we tell you as experts that, geeze, you know, we are looking at the data, and for the vast majority of students, there's really very little benefit in test prep.
Now, when I say test prep, I'm not talking about students, as what that one student said, studying their buns off, or I'm not talking about students, you know, who are picking up a manual. I'm talking about the test prep that requires hours and hours and lots of money and in this context of, oh, if you don't do this, you won't do well; you won't get in to a good college. I hope that we give more permission for people to have serious conversations about that and to let some of the steam out of this whole thing.
BRAND: Philip Ballinger is the admissions director at the University of Washington. And we've been talking about this new study out from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. And that study, you can get a link to it at our website, npr.org. And Philip Ballinger, thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. BALLINGER: A pleasure. Take care.
BRAND: You know, Alex, I am so glad the SAT's are well, well behind us. I just remember how frustrating. You remember that section, the analogies part? They don't have it anymore.
CHADWICK: Analogies are to SAT's as headaches are to getting though the day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: That's right. And, you know, I kind of liked the analogies, actually, because it's kind of fun to play with them, and I'm good in that. I'm going to give you one.
CHADWICK: OK, OK.
BRAND: Okay. Mortgage-backed securities are to banking as the Chicago Cubs are to?
CHADWICK: Baseball. I get that one.
BRAND: OK. All right listeners, if you want to play, you can go to our website, our blog, actually, npr.org/daydreaming. And we have an analogy for you to finish.
CHADWICK: And it is?
BRAND: Maverick is to change as? Well, you can complete the rest of that analogy on our blog. If you don't like that one, come up with one of your own. Go to npr.org/daydreaming. That's our blog. Weigh in with your favorite analogy. NPR's Day to Day continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The SATs can be good for behaviorally challenged slackers who just happen to be great test-takers. But is the test really good for anyone else? A new study says yes, but urges colleges, parents and students to loosen up.
The SATs can be good for behaviorally challenged slackers who just happen to be great test-takers. A 1600 can get them into a great college, despite horrible grades and discipline problems. But is the test really good for anyone else?
Yes, but more colleges should consider making it optional, according to a new study released by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Researcher Phillip Ballinger, who is director of admissions at the University of Washington, explains the results to Madeleine Brand.
The test can be useful so long as it's used in broad context as part of a comprehensive review of a student, Ballinger says.
"Universities need to do their own research and to be able to understand clearly the benefit, if any, of using the tests for admission and other purposes," he says. If their research finds that test results are not useful, "then we ask them to consider dropping the use of the test."
Similarly, he urges students to take the test a little less seriously. These days it's not uncommon for students to take the test more than twice "because of this sense of anxiety and urgency," he says. But really, there's little added benefit except in extreme situations.
Likewise, parents need to stop and think whether it's really worth paying thousands for study help, he says. The SAT and ACT prep industry generates more than $1 billion annually. Many of the more expensive test-prep programs claim that students will increase their scores by 100 points — but, according to the report, the average gain is only 20 to 30 points.
Ballinger says he hopes the findings will help "give more permission for people to have serious conversations" about whether it's worth spending so much time, money and anxiety on standardized tests and "to let some steam out of this whole thing."