Testing the Right Way for Talent

By Hugh B. Price 

President 

National Urban League

High stakes standardized tests, like the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, fail to capture the qualities most essential for success in the corporate world, such as creativity, drive, and leadership, according to a new survey of 200 corporate executives of Fortune 1000 companies the National Urban League released last week.

In addition, 15 senior executives of some of America’s largest companies signed a general letter to college and university presidents urging them to resist disproportionately relying on the SAT to determine which applicants to college they will and will not admit. “We are concerned,” the letter stated, “that these tests are being asked to do far more than they should, and that young people are paying the consequences.”

The executives went on to urge higher education leaders not to ignore the value of more qualitative attributes—such as character, integrity, the ability to overcome obstacles, determination, drive, ambition, and the ability to motivate others—which applicants may have that contribute to leadership and success both at these colleges and in the world beyond them. The world where those qualities are always needed, of course, include such other arenas as public service and the nonprofit world.

Our survey and letter come on the heels of the bold recommendation Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, made two months ago that the SAT should be scrapped as an admissions requirement for any of that university’s colleges.

Expectedly, his proposal triggered the latest round of the longstanding heated debate over what role entrance exams should play in choosing freshman classes at the nation’s selective colleges and universities.

I couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic backdrop, if you will, to the findings of the Urban League survey and letter. Significantly, these documents mark the first time corporate executives have weighed in the use of standardized tests in college admissions.

They’ve done so for the same reason that the Urban League’s Institute for Opportunity & Equality last year asked the survey research firm, DYG, Inc. to undertake the study: because the corporate world, like American society as a whole, now more than ever needs to insure that all the talent in the society has access to the opportunity it deserves.

These business leaders understand the importance of a balanced admissions policy because they draw from the same talent pool as educators. When that pool

shrinks, as it has now because of an excessive reliance on standardized tests, the business world will suffer, too.

They, like we at the National Urban League and many others, have grown alarmed in recent years at the excessive reliance on these exam scores in admissions decisions.

The damage done by this trend is compounded by the relentless legal assault on affirmative action, whose opponents use test scores as a weapon to bar eminently qualified black and Latino students from admission to selective public college and universities.

But we have three decades worth of evidence that these are the very kind of students who in prior years did gain admission, did graduate, and did go on to successful careers and often to leadership positions in their professions and communities.

This has been proven by several longitudinal studies done on the graduate activities and the post-graduate careers of alumni from such schools as the University of California at Davis Medical School, and the University of Michigan Law School, and by the even longer-term study in the book, The Shape of The River, by William G. Bowen, and Derek Bok, the former presidents of Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively.

No, the National Urban League isn’t calling for the abolition of the SAT and other entrance exams. Properly used and appropriately weighed, the SAT can, in the words of Dr. Nancy Cole, the former president of the Educational Testing Service, which designs the exam, provide “objective and fair information about certain skills and abilities that help students succeed in college.”

Nor are we ignoring the responsibility of educators at the K-12 level to improve the quality of schooling there. Nor that of parents and local communities to get their children ready to learn and hold the quest for academic success as their most important goal. That’s why the Urban League in the late 1990s launched its Campaign for African-American Achievement in order to mobilize local black communities across the country around the pursuit of educational success.

Make no mistake. We want our youngsters to excel on the SAT, too.

But all of these responsibilities and goals shouldn’t be used to obscure the need for colleges and universities to better align their admissions procedures with their missions and society’s needs—especially when there’s abundant proof that there’s more than one way to tell who’s deserving of opportunity.

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