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Media Mangles Education News... Again

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

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    Nearly everyone will be familiar with the charge that our mainstream media is biased. But there is a much more serious media transgression which gets little attention- incompetence, usually stemming from laziness. Bias is detectable; misinformation, often is not. Whenever newspapers publish stories in which reporters rely upon press releases issued by interested parties or editors overreach to grab a sizzling headline, there is a risk the public will be misled.

    For example, one of the education stories being mangled by the media these days involves a committee report issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling two weeks ago. The NACAC committee, chaired by William Fitzsimmons, the Harvard Dean of Admissions, suggested that colleges re-examine the extent to which they were relying upon the two primary admissions tests, the SAT I and the ACT. The report's authors wrote that  "colleges and universities may be better served by admission exams more closely linked to high school curriculum."

    The committee hastened to add that it was not advocating a one size fits all approach to college admissions but was recommending colleges question and reassess their use of the two tests. It is particularly significant that the NACAC authors urged colleges to consider using admission tests that are subject-based--citing exams such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and SAT IIs (Subject tests) to evaluate undergraduate applicants.
    Regrettably, newspaper headlines opted for sweeping pronouncements: "Report Says Test Scores Should be Less Important in College Admissions," (USN&WR); "Panel Urges Reduced Use of College-Admission Test," (Education Week); "Take tests Down a Notch, Report Says," (Chronicle of Higher Education).  Newspapers and news services focused on the SAT: "College Panel Calls for Less Focus on SATs," (NYT);  "Study tells college to focus less on SATs," (UPI).
    One upshot has been that newspapers ignored the real thrust of the report which was not that colleges should discontinue requiring standardized admission exams, but that many colleges would be better served using other already available exams or work to develop new exams.

    Another problem is that advocates for and against the continuing use of the SAT I have staked out positions based upon misrepresentations of the NACAC report. For example, in Tuesday's USA Today, dueling op-eds both missed the mark. In "Too soon to drop the SAT," the newspapers' editors claimed that "college admissions directors embraced a report that recommended de-emphasizing or even abandoning standardized admissions tests." The opposing view, written by the executive director of Fair Test, a group generally opposed to standardized tests, opined:  "NACAC is right. Test-optional admissions clearly works well."
    While it's certainly within the purview of op-ed writers to marshal facts that support their theses, there is a significant problem when those supposed facts are misrepresented in the first place.

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    Colleges should continue to require that applicants take standardized admission tests but, as recommended by NACAC, should evaluate which types of tests best meet their needs.


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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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