Divided We Learn

OPINION: We can’t base our kids’ futures on a few hours one random Saturday morning. That’s just one reason to drop the National Merit Scholarship Program

The myth of the ‘great equalizer’

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Andrew Palumbo

Last month, Worcester Polytechnic Institute confirmed to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation that we would end our participation in the National Merit Scholarship program and ceased offering scholarships to recipients of the College Board’s National Hispanic Recognition Program.

Weeks earlier, when we had discussed this move with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a representative of the organization suggested we reconsider. She said that this decision could negatively impact WPI’s ability to recruit students who are eligible for other universities’ National Merit Scholarship awards.

Ultimately, this was a consequence that we were willing to accept in order to better align our scholarship offerings with WPI’s institutional goals and values.

Each year, approximately 1.5 million U.S. high school students take part in the National Merit Scholarship Program competition in the fall of their junior year. All but 1 percent of these students will be eliminated from scholarship eligibility in the first two rounds of the competition. Students’ scores on a single high-stakes standardized test, the College Board’s PSAT, are the only factor considered in their dismissal from the competition.

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While the National Merit Scholarship program may be well-intentioned, it perpetuates an ultra-competitive college admissions and scholarship environment that impacts millions of college-bound high schoolers every year and supports an antiquated American fixation on flawed high-stakes testing as some type of mythical “great equalizer.”

There is an undeniable value in striving for more equitable policies and philosophies in the college admissions process. When WPI adopted a test-optional admission policy ten years ago, our intent was to send a clear message to students, their families, and our colleagues in college counseling: Admissions decisions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute are based on how students perform academically in four years of high school; they are not based on how they scored one Saturday morning on a four-hour test.

We wanted to make this point especially clear to women and students of color as they are historically underrepresented at science and engineering institutions and are among those most disenfranchised by standardized testing.

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The College Board’s National Hispanic Reconition recepients must meet at least a 3.5 GPA and be one-quarter Hispanic/Latino; beyond this barrier the selection criteria is solely based on a student’s score on the PSAT. This extreme reliance on PSAT scores led to WPI’s decision to eliminate our National Hispanic Recognition scholarships.

Most of the students who would have been eligible for either of these two scholarships in previous years will still qualify for generous scholarships and need-based aid at WPI. The difference is that they will be earning scholarships that everyone is eligible for rather than those that reward only high-stakes test scores.

Ten years later, we are proud to say that eliminating the standardized testing requirement was a great catalyst in improving equity in our admissions process and broadening access to WPI. While overall student enrollment has grown 41 percent, the enrollment of females has grown 88 percent, and underrepresented students of color have increased by 172 percent. Female underrepresented students of color – WPI’s fastest growing population during the past decade – have increased by 274 percent.

The majority of my college counseling colleagues at high schools and colleges would find it difficult to argue that standardized testing is a fair measure of achievement or capability. Far too many of us have worked with bright high-achieving students who don’t perform well on high-stakes tests.

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We are also well-aware of the research that has gone into the predictive value of these tests as well as the inherent bias that is inevitable in a test designed by human beings. When designing a high-stakes test, decisions are made which inevitably affect what will be measured, how it will be measured, and what constraints will be placed upon test takers. Naturally these decisions will benefit some students while disenfranchising others. Specifically, the College Board’s own reporting on national SAT scores indicates biases based on a student’s family income, race/ethnicity, and gender.

We know that a student’s performance in the academic classroom and co-curricular settings provide far better indicators for success at the majority of our institutions. The major testing corporations argue that standardized tests are required because there is no way to have a fair and direct comparison of students in different academic settings because schools, courses, and grades can differ. While this is true, it also is an attempt to prop up a false assumption that such tests are fair. They are not.

The truth is that there is no way to equitably compare all students applying to our nation’s colleges and universities. This is one of the biggest weaknesses of our college admissions process, yet one of the strengths of our nation’s education system.

According to a 2008 report issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling identifying major misuses of standardized tests for all universities to avoid, one inappropriate application is “the use of test score cut off points as a sole screening factor for awarding scholarship money.”

Despite the establishment of clear guidelines against this unacceptable use of standardized test scores — and regardless of evidence of inherent bias — the National Merit Scholarship Corporation continues to employ such cutoffs to eliminate 99 percent of all students participating in their competition for scholarship dollars.

WPI will not continue to support scholarship programs that ignore our industry’s professional guidelines and are out of sync with our institutional ideals of access and equity. By no means does our university — or any higher education institution — claim to be perfect in how we support these ideals. We should be committed, however, to providing more equity and access to all students.

Andrew Palumbo is the dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Andrew Palumbo

Andrew Palumbo is the dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. See Archive

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