Tests Misused for Enrichment Program Admissions

University Testing

Standardized tests, particularly the SAT, are used with disturbing frequency to select young students for university-based academic enrichment programs across the country. As a result, exam-makers profit, students are over-tested, and mostly white males are able to take advantage of valuable educational opportunities.


For example, Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development runs three summer programs "to develop the academic potential of talented young adolescents." Each program gives students the opportunity to study with master teachers and to complete an entire high school course in three weeks' time. And each bases admission on SAT or ACT cut-off scores. To enter algebra and trigonometry courses in the "Spectrum" program, seventh to ninth graders must post a combined SAT score of at least 920 (recentered), including 520 on the Math section, or simply score a minimum 550 on Math.


But the SAT and ACT are designed solely to predict first year college grades -- a task they perform poorly -- not to identify "gifted and talented" students. The test-makers appear never to have conducted validation studies showing the tests are appropriate for such purposes. Nor, according to the manufacturers, are the SAT or ACT to be used as the sole criterion for high- stakes decisions.


Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth develops math courses not available in schools, for kindergarten through high school students. Here too, participation is based solely on standardized test results. For older students, only those scoring in the top 3% of the population on the math portion of the PSAT or SAT qualify. Students under age 11 must submit a Wechler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) report or an individualized Stanford-Binet evaluation These IQ tests were found by a federal judge to be racially biased and may not be used in California for placement of Black students (see Examiner, Winter 1988).


Misuses at Johns Hopkins

The Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth (IAAY) at Johns Hopkins University will only admit to its new summer program, the Center for Academic Achievement (CAA), 7th graders scoring at or above 430 (recentered) on both the SAT Verbal and Math tests. The Center for Talented Youth (CTY), a 15 year-old IAAY summer program, requires 510-Verbal (recentered) and 530-Math (recentered) for 7th grade admissions, with higher cut-offs for applicants up to seventeen years old. Given the test score distributions by race and gender (see Examiner Fall/Winter 1995-96), it is not surprising that most participants in these programs are white and male. Among college- bound seniors in 1995, African American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican and female subgroups all averaged below CTY cut-scores, while average White and male scores exceeded or very nearly met them.


In the summer of 1995, Johns Hopkins attendees (7th grade and up) were 56% male and 44% female. Whites made up 55.4% of the student body, with Asian Americans at 33.9%, Hispanics at 1.4%, African Americans at 1.1%, and Native Americans at .1% (10% claimed "other" or no answer). While stressing that IAAY is "totally voluntary" for those who meet the qualifications - - implying that the skewed attendance numbers are not a function of IAAY's reliance on test scores -- an IAAY official conceded that racial and gender parity is "not the kind of thing that we really focus on."


In order to recruit students, IAAY and other enrichment programs locate 7th grade students who have scored at or above the 97th percentile on school-administered standardized tests, then "invite" them to take the SAT as part of a "Talent Search." Students may be admitted to CTY if they have taken the SAT independently, but Talent Search participants receive preferential treatment for course placement; CAA applicants must participate in the Search. The Talent Search costs $25, and the SAT is $21.50, before any test preparation expenses.


The sole criterion for succeeding in the IAAY Talent Search -- that is, for being identified as "talented" and eligible for program admission -- is the SAT result. Benefits of succeeding in the Search include: $1,000 awards toward CTY programs for the highest Math, Verbal and combined SAT scorers; one-course scholarships at participating colleges; recognition at a State Awards ceremony; and invitations to academic and career planning conferences.


More Young Children Take SAT

At Duke University, the Talent Identification Program (TIP) attracts nearly 70,000 7th graders a year, and the Motivation for Academic Performance (MAP) search brought in over 8,900 4th and 5th grade entrants its first year. Both purport to "identify and serve" talented youth by facilitating early testing, then providing information such as guides to gifted student programs and newsletters. MAP stresses that students can "take advantage of optional 'out-of-level' testing," and TIP requires an SAT or ACT, declaring, as if it were a benefit: "students take college entrance exams alongside high school seniors." But even TIP's own research on the SAT-Math gender gap concluded, "score differences may reflect differences in performance styles which have nothing to do with ability." No enrichment program FairTest surveyed reported weighing into admissions policies how gender, race or economic background affect test scores.


Rather than worsening the testing epidemic to which students are exposed by forcing younger and younger children to take the SAT and similar exams, true "talent" searches would look at a range of factors such as grades, course rigor, academic honors, and extra-curricular performance. That is what the 240 colleges that are SAT/ACT optional for undergraduate admissions already do. By requiring applicants to meet cut-off scores, these "gifted-and-talented" programs are misusing test scores and reinforcing the inequities of educational opportunity already faced by many low-income, minority and female students.


Computerized SAT Pilot Means Profits for ETS, IAAY, Sylvan

Beginning in October 1996, IAAY will invite Talent Search participants to take a computerized SAT so that ETS can pilot a new computer adaptive form of the exam, according to an agreement recently signed by the College Board, ETS, IAAY and Sylvan Learning Systems, Inc., a test preparation chain in which ETS owns stock.


"We hope that the Computerized SAT will be selected by a significant number of the 100,000 or so seventh- and eighth-grade students who currently take the pencil-and-paper SAT I for admission to Johns Hopkins and other talent search programs," said an ETS official. Sylvan centers will be the only places in the country where computerized SATs will be available; only IAAY Talent Search students will have access to the trial tests.


Under this arrangement, ETS profits by condoning SAT use for talent searches and admissions among non-college bound students at the same time it gets free "guinea pigs" to develop a new product. IAAY will continue to use the SAT as a vehicle to justify its $25-per- person search, to their financial advantage and to the detriment of minority and female students.