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Baylor Shoots at USN&WR Rankings...And Then Backs Down

By       Message Patrick Mattimore       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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    A committee appointed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling recommended last month that colleges take a hard look at whether they need to continue requiring the SAT I. That test is the primary standardized test used by admissions' departments at competitive colleges.

    On the heels of the NACAC report came news last week that Baylor University had begun to pay students to take the SAT I test, AFTER they had been admitted to that school. The story, first detailed in the university's newspaper, the Lariat, became national news. It was picked up by The New York Times which reported that Baylor faculty had subsequently passed a motion declaring the administration's policy "academically dishonest."- According to The NYT story, faculty members felt that the payment incentive was at odds with the college's strong commitment to academic integrity.

    The backstory is that Baylor would dearly love to improve its U.S. News & World Report college ranking and has made that a linchpin of the school's 10-year strategic plan. One of the evaluative factors in the USN&WR rankings is a school's mean SAT scores. Baylor offered this year's incoming freshmen a $300 bookstore allowance to take the test this past June and offered to provide $1000 a year in merit scholarship aid to those students who raised their scores by at least 50 points.  

    Robert Morse directs USN&WR's college rankings. He told insidehighered.com that Baylor's policy "seems like a scam."-  Morse said that USN&WR disapproves of any college policy that attempts to manipulate his magazine's rankings.

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    Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, a group generally opposed to the use of standardized tests in college admissions, called Baylor's action a "cynical attempt to boost test score averages."- Schaeffer said, "This is a perfect example of what NACAC warned about in their report."-

    Philip Ballinger, the director of admissions at the University of Washington and member of the NACAC committee said that Baylor was misusing the test, divorcing itself from the "educational mission of a university."- He termed the action "rotten"- as if "all of a sudden people removed their brains and went to Mars."-

    At the end of last week, Baylor backed off. Baylor's Director of Media Relations, Lori Fogelman, told the press that the school had "heard and understood the criticisms"- of other college admissions folks, the faculty, and apparently eveyone else who saw fit to comment on the policy. Now students will be able to take the test after they have been accepted to "improve their credentials"- (insidehighered.com) or "enhance their academic profile"- (The Lariat), but will not receive the $300 incentive. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that students will be able to use the test to get into a higher scholarship bracket, however.

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    Call me a brainless extraterrestrial, but despite misgivings about the value of the SAT I, I think Baylor made a good decision in the first instance. Here's why. First, it's not as if rewarding students for doing well on tests is anything new. Schools award scholarships based upon test scores. Colleges offer bookstore rebates and course credits for performance on Advanced Placement exams. As long as a college requires the SAT I and believes it is related to the school's educational mission, it's a good idea to have students get the highest scores on the test that they possibly can.
    Second, students are paid or receive credit for volunteering to participate in all manner of experiments while they are in college. The only sticking point here is that Baylor is taking the student awards a step further by actively seeking to enhance its own national ranking.

    And why not? Few people believe that the USN&WR college rankings really and truly measure college quality. The problem is that the fictitious rankings that the magazine unveils each year are so woven into the public's consciousness that we accept the magazine's judgment that a school is #1 or #50 or third tier, even when we know better. Baylor and other colleges should continue to look for ways to game the USN&WR rankings just like those rankings have been gaming colleges and the public for years. And if that means some kids will pay less tuition, so much the better.


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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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