Eric Thomas: ‘Test-optional’ exams teach Kansas teens a lesson in contradiction (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

On Saturday, my daughter will join thousands of fellow high school students as she takes the ACT test. The list of preparations is simple. 

She needs a good night’s sleep. She should have a healthy snack for breakfast. She needs to bring her student ID. And she will hope that hours of studying pay off.

This all sounds familiar to those of us who applied to college anywhere from five to 25 years ago — except with even more pressure back then. For my friends and me, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) were essential and stressful rites of passage.

We paged through college books (yes, paper books with page numbers), scanning for universities that admitted students whose average score was within our academic striking distance.

Still stuck in the aspirational recesses of my brain is the memory (perhaps a myth) that Princeton University had an average SAT score of 1510 during the year I was applying. Let’s be clear: That average score was more than enough to shoo me away from applying to there or any Ivy League school.

To many high school seniors emerging from the pandemic, however, the idea of completing — let alone preparing for — either test seems as old-fashioned as changing a cassette tape in your family’s answering machine.

For the past few years, administering the tests, which demanded hours in a room with strangers, was a recipe for spreading COVID. For that reason, the tests were logistically impossible, in addition to being academically predatory at a time when students received a simulacrum of their normal high school rigor. In that environment, what would standardized tests prove?

Educators have been asking that question about both tests for years before the pandemic. Years of research shows the test is discriminatory. The tests punish students because of their cultural blind spots and other racial factors.

Add to that, many people question whether one student who scored 27 on the ACT — let’s call her Sarah — will perform better in introductory math class versus her friend Sydney who scored 25 on the math section.

That is the alluring proposition of the benchmark scores from testing companies. Both the SAT and the ACT publish scores that they say predict student success in each subject area. If Sarah scores a 530 on the math portion of the SAT, the College Board says, she is likely to be college ready when she steps onto campus. 

“Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark,” the SAT website says, “have a 75% chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in algebra, statistics, precalculus, or calculus.”

Let’s call that the “gatekeeper” function of the test: providing admission to students who will do well at your university and blocking undeserving or unprepared students. Before the pandemic, many schools had already ditched this approach because of equity, or because they disputed that the tests were strongly predictive.

Once the pandemic unplugged the usual testing routine, schools were forced to filter students for admission without this once-coveted data point.

Just because my daughter — and many like her — can complete the test again, why give up sunny summer days plus this Saturday morning to take it?

The crux of that decision comes from a phrase that most class of 2023 parents hear all the time: test optional.

Many colleges advertise themselves as test optional if they don’t require a specific SAT or ACT score. With the right GPA, essay, recommendation letters and extracurriculars, Sarah can get into a selective school without cracking open a test prep book or ceding her Saturday morning to tightly gripping a #2 pencil.

In fact, many universities allow admission simply with a sufficient GPA. For instance, at Wichita State University, that GPA is 2.25. Here at the University of Kansas, where I teach, and Kansas State University, the required score is 3.25.

Sounds simple, right? Test optional. Once you achieve your GPA, go frolic in the September air with your friends, Sarah. You’ve escaped the dreaded ACT.

Sorry to say it, Sarah, but our new test-optional reality is more complicated. Just as we have morphed back into our pre-pandemic habits in other ways, we are backsliding into our old habits with standardized college admissions tests.

While many universities don’t require a minimum test score for admission to the university at large, the most rigorous majors dial up the requirements. This is especially true if your student wants to be admitted into the school of engineering, school of business or other selective schools as a freshman.

No surprise here: Those colleges provide degrees with the best earning potential. In four years, Sarah might have a degree but no way to pay down her student loans when she gets her first job.

While we are on the topic of student aid, many scholarships consider ACT scores as a factor. Many universities publish a table to make it relentlessly clear. Pair up your score at a particular threshold with a GPA in a specific range and — presto! — your annual scholarship is $12,000 … or $15,000 … or $20,000 … or a full ride.

So, if Sarah wants to major in computer science or earn a clear-cut scholarship, the test doesn’t seem so optional anymore.

This week, I met with fellow scholarship committee members here at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I am proud that our committee is blind to test scores as we review the applications of our incoming and returning students each winter and spring. We find merit in other ways: their writing, their community involvement, their energy for creating media and, most vitally, their financial need.

These methods take hours of time. We can’t simply sort a spreadsheet by ACT score and reward the students who scored best — nor should we. If colleges recognize that these standardized tests shouldn’t be trusted for admissions decisions, those same colleges should abandon them completely. For many students, earning a scholarship is just as vital to attending a university as showing academic merit.

So, my first hope is that “test optional” becomes a more honest statement of how our nation’s universities and colleges review student merit. If you don’t trust the test, then don’t trust it.

But my second hope is this: that my daughter doesn’t read my ranting here before her test session Saturday. If she does read it, she might wonder why I would both insist on her studying for the test and then shred the process here. Why did I help her score her practice test last night and pat her on the shoulder for her steady and gutsy improvements?

Well, my daughter, the truth here is a contradiction.

The optional test isn’t really optional.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

About the writer
About the writer

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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Community Children’s Center: Embracing the lost art of boredom (Column)

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”This summer, I encourage all parents and caregivers to give yourselves a break! Allow your child to be bored and know that you are facilitating an opportunity for your child to learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings, increase their creativity, and inspire imagination,” Chelsea Harrington writes in this column from the Community Children’s Center.


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