For the 5,500 college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors who gathered here over the weekend, there were discussions, debates and analyses of things like the ethics of tracking student applicants on Facebook and “Why Good Students Write Bad College Essays — and How to Stop It.”
But for this crowd, at the Seattle convention center for the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the main event was William R. Fitzsimmons’s first public presentation of the findings of the Study of the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission.
Mr. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, led a commission of college admissions officials who drafted the study, which challenges colleges and universities to examine their use of the SAT and ACT and to consider whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages or whether they can make the tests optional for admissions.
The line formed early for Mr. Fitzsimmons’s panel, and with more than 1,000 people jockeying for a limited number of seats — a scene that brought to mind the college admissions process — the event was moved to the ballroom.
“It’s electrifying to both sides of the desk,” said Louis L. Hirsh, admissions director at the University of Delaware, “to counselors who are worried about the stresses that the SAT places on the kids, and from the college end, the people whom all of us respect are looking at a test that all of us use and asking all of us to be more thoughtful about how they use it and what role it plays in our admissions.”
Mr. Fitzsimmons, who took center stage along with the other members of the commission, tried to ease the fears of the ardent supporters of the standardized admissions tests, taking pains to say that the SAT had many advantages.
But he also affirmed what many of those present had been saying for years: that the SAT and other standardized admissions tests are “incredibly imprecise” when it comes to measuring academic ability and how well students will perform in college. He said colleges and universities needed to do much more research into how well the tests predict success at their individual institutions.
Test prep can work, Mr. Fitzsimmons said, but he noted — and the audience applauded — that there was a difference between test prep that consists of studying on your own and $400-an-hour one-on-one tutoring that starts in the seventh grade.
“There is no evidence on what the latter test prep does,” he said. “We know it’s an advantage, but we don’t have enough information.”
There has been longstanding debate and concern about the impact of standardized testing on socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and the ballroom erupted in applause when Mr. Fitzsimmons called for an end to the use of “cut scores” to determine who qualifies for National Merit and other scholarships. The practice means that one student is rewarded while excluding another whose SAT score may be only a single point lower, Mr. Fitzsimmons said.
What that single point differential fails to take into account, he said, is the context: The two students may have “lived entirely different lives, had entirely different educational opportunities and entirely different access to test prep.”
The audience also applauded Mr. Fitzsimmons’s call for U.S. News & World Report to stop using SAT scores as part of its college rankings.