What Do Standardized Test Scores Have To Do With the Quality of a College?
Last week I wrote an opinion piece about college rankings that received a little more attention than others that I write on EducatedQuest. I simply don’t believe that published college rankings should hold much sway in a family’s decision to choose a college. Today, I’ll cover an area that falls within many college rankings, standardized test scores. Generally, the higher the middle 50 percent of entering freshmen score on a standardized test, the ACT or the SAT, the higher the college ranks.
Evaluating colleges year to year in part based on standardized test scores is much like rating houses by the quality of their vinyl siding or cars based on the steel and rubber that went into their manufacturing. In effect the college ranking source is doing something that the colleges themselves are doing less and less. They are validating the importance of standardized test scores in choosing a student body.
If they were rating the college’s admissions marketing effort I would understand this completely. A college admissions office wants to attract high scorers who also have excellent academic record. There’s plenty of academic research to support the points that students who come from well-to-do backgrounds score higher on standardized tests and are more likely to graduate from college. A student who has a 4.0+, 700s on each section of the SAT who comes from wealth is quite likely to be offered a tuition-free ride somewhere. However, that is not college rankings are about.
If college rankings are to exist they should be a measure what the college is doing to retain and graduate freshmen and transfer students. No one has ever published such a ranking. It would likely embarrass too many schools. It would also elevate some schools that people would not rank so highly on their own.
I’ll give one example of such a school that I have visited: Siena College in upstate New York (picture above).
Classified as a National Liberal Arts College–more than half of the students have a liberal arts major–Siena has approximately 3,100 undergraduates. It has excellent partnerships to help its students gain admission to law school and medical school. It also has strong business and education programs, as well as some interesting approaches to teaching chemistry and physics that I observed when I visited last year.
Siena has a large student body for a liberal arts school. However, no undergraduate class has as many as 40 students. Unless you live near Albany, New York, Siena is not likely to first on your lips as a “top” college. It attracts students who typically have B/B+ grades who come from within the region. If Siena had not been an option these students might have gone to SUNY-University at Albany close by or to SUNY-Oneonta, the nearest of the smaller state schools.
Siena typically admits students who have a B/B+ GPA. The middle 50 percent score between 1000 and 1200 on the SAT, between 23 and 27 on the ACT Composite. There are many “good” and “very good” students at Siena. But there are probably very few who got a good look from Colgate, Hamilton or Union, among other selective liberal arts schools, though they might have considered New York’s Jesuit schools: Canisius, Fordham or LeMoyne.
However, Siena has successfully retained, on average, 87 percent of a freshman class each year since 2000, as good or better than many better-known schools. Siena regularly graduates 75 to 80 percent of their freshman on time. At the same time, this school could, on average, meet only 70 percent of the financial need for its students, though the school maintains a reasonable (less than $50,000) sticker price for a private school. Not to mention that its admit pool comes from a small part of the country. It does not even include all of New York State or very much of New England.
So Siena, which takes students with decent, but not shoot-the-lights-out, academic records from a small student market does an excellent job of guiding them to graduation.
But U.S. News does not rank Siena among the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges.
No doubt the standardized test scores help to bring the school’s ranking down. Most of the schools that rank higher have higher score ranges.
Yet Siena outperforms every state university in New York at graduating a class. It should; it is marketing itself as offering a more personalized approach to a college education. It also graduates students at about the same rate as Fordham, a far more selective, and more expensive private school in a far more popular location. Yet I know no one who would hold Siena College in the same esteem as Binghamton or Fordham, unless they were a Siena employee or alum.
If someone was to tell me that Siena was one of the best liberal arts colleges in the U.S. I wouldn’t argue. The college does an excellent job at educating the students it has. If their admissions director tells a B/B+ student with some honors or AP courses on the transcript that s/he could succeed at whatever s/he wanted to do if s/he chose Siena, I’d be inclined to believe her. I cannot say that with confidence about many other colleges.
I suppose that if standardized test scores were tossed out of college rankings the same schools that rank high would still rank high. Students who got into an exceptionally-selective college with a notable name usually want to stay there. That might be a reflection of pride and self worth. But it is not a reflection of the quality of the education they were given.