Why Standardized Tests Are A Bottleneck for Student Success

Among education headlines, expert panels, and conference keynotes over the past year, there have been several discussions about micro-credentialing, up-skilling, and improving outcomes for students after graduation. All of these topics, while fascinating and important, assume the student has successfully made it into the college that was right for them.

What about applicants who are missing the opportunity at an education that’s right for them because the admissions process wasn’t designed for them to succeed?

Just last month, Harvard Law School announced a significant move to open up their admissions process to the GRE in addition to the LSAT. The change comes, appropriately, after mounting critical evidence of the flaws in the college admissions process.

The more stringent and specific admissions requirements become, the more it shrinks the pool of applicants who can even apply to gain the knowledge that the program offers.

As Matthew Sigelman, from Burning Glass Technologies, spoke about in his SXSWEdu talk “Skills, Not Jobs,” the modern workforce requires students to be equipped with a range of skills rather than solely prepared for a single occupation. Higher education administrators hear this, nod, and note-take feverishly. “How do we ensure our graduates are prepared to change jobs a dozen times in their career?” they ask.

Yet, the top schools in three of the biggest graduate education segments, medicine, law, and business, almost unanimously require their applicants to prepare for single-purpose admissions tests. They ask applicants to prepare heavily for one test, just to be considered for training; one test that will not directly support their career path.

It seems like a mismatch to me.

Moves like the one Harvard made earlier this month represent a step in the right direction.

Not only does the opportunity to submit a GRE open up attending Harvard as an option to a much larger pool of applicants, but it also lowers the barrier to entry. The LSAT is known to be a grueling test, one which applicants often have to take time off work and extensive test prep. And in the event they don’t perform well, they have to do it all over again.

That’s a hefty ask just to be able to submit an application.

Other schools should take note. Not just law schools either. By eliminating the requirement for a specific, single-purpose test, the school is widening the bottleneck of standardized tests to allow a more diverse applicant pool to put their best selves forward and consider a career path in law.

Over a decade ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote “Getting In,” a commentary on college admissions for The New Yorker, and it’s an article I’ve found myself going back to frequently in recent years.

One question he poses to readers is this:

“A law school that wants to select the best possible lawyers has to use a very different admissions process from a law school that wants to select the best possible law students. And wouldn’t we prefer that at least some law schools try to select good lawyers instead of good law students?”

In all of the conversations about improving outcomes for students and ensuring institutions are equipping them with the right skills, Gladwell’s question is a critical to ask at the admissions stage: Does your school want to enroll students who will be the best students, or does your school want students who will use their education to be the best in their field after graduation?

The best ‘students’ will have a history of strong academic performance, they’ll have made time to prepare for tests, and they’ll succeed on standardized tests. The current system is designed for them.

But for everyone else, trying to ‘fit in’ just to ‘get in’ is the most challenging part.

For schools who want to expand the narrow gates of their admissions process further, evaluating applicants on the traits that align with their best graduates is a good place to start. Give students who are in the grey area, based on grades and test scores, a chance to tell their story.

Why do they want to be in your program? What do they hope to do with their career? Why should they be accepted?

Assessing ‘traits’ or ‘competencies’ is more subjective than a test score, but it can be standardized using a rubric of non-cognitive indicators. Seeing how applicants present their passion to enroll in your program could be the critical differentiator in what will make them a great addition to your next class.

Emilie Cushman

Emilie Cushman

Emilie Cushman is the Founder and CEO of Kira Talent, an assessment platform for higher education. Cushman founded the company in 2012, and since launching Kira she has been named the HSBC Woman Leader of Tomorrow and one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women.