Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Signal to noise 

As university admissions offices continue to reduce their reliance on standardized tests out of concern for racial balance, the availability of alternative mechanisms for allocating scarce seats at selective colleges and universities is declining. One of four applicants to Harvard with a 2400 SAT score are turned down. High school grades are growing less useful.

Extra credit for AP courses, parental lobbying and genuine hard work by the most competitive students have combined to shatter any semblance of a Bell curve, one in which 'A's are reserved only for the very best. For example, of the 47,317 applications the University of California, Los Angeles, received for this fall's freshman class, nearly 21,000 had GPAs of 4.0 or above.

That's also making it harder for the most selective colleges -- who often call grades the single most important factor in admissions -- to join in a growing movement to lessen the influence of standardized tests.

"We're seeing 30, 40 valedictorians at a high school because they don't want to create these distinctions between students," said Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "If we don't have enough information, there's a chance we'll become more heavily reliant on test scores, and that's a real negative to me."

As a result, colleges are relying more on aptitude tests than ever.
"It's the only thing we have to evaluate students that will help us" tell how they compare to each other, said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. ...

The average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94 between 1990 and 2000, according to a federal study. Almost 23 percent of college freshmen in 2005 reported their average grade in high school was an A or better, according to a national survey by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. In 1975, the percentage was about half that.

GPAs reported by students on surveys when they take the SAT and ACT exams have also risen -- and faster than their scores on those tests. That suggests their classroom grades aren't rising just because students are getting smarter. Not surprisingly, the test-owners say grade inflation shows why testing should be kept: It gives all students an equal chance to shine.

In Georgia, where the HOPE scholarship program provides public tuition subsidies to students who graduate achieve a 3.0 GPA, high school grades have risen. Not so, it appears, at Edina High in Minnesota, where the average student's SAT score is 1170. (Worth noting, however, is that only those students planning on applying nationwide will take the SAT, as the ACT is more prevalent at Midwest schools. Not the best of statistics there.) Class ranks are given, but these too are subject to manipulation by taking the courses with bonus GPA points. Besides, there are 36,000 HS graduates ranked #1 in their schools. They can't all go to Ivy League schools; Penn and Duke turned down 60% of valedictorians who applied.

If it all comes down to the admissions essay, who can afford the coaches and counselors who help write the best ones? Doesn't it seem like the dog is still chasing its own tail?