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Schools and Kids
With guest Joanne V. Creighton
President, Mount Holyoke College

Wednesday, June 28, 2000, 1 p.m. EDT

Joanne V. Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke College, talked about her college's decision to make the SAT optional for students applying for admission.

The decision comes as SATs and standardized testing in general are falling under more scrutiny.

Starting this year, Mount Holyoke begins a five-year trial period in which the college will not require SATs for admission.

Mount Holyoke officials say the SAT does not measure the intellectual and motivational qualities it looks for, such as intellectual curiosity, creativity and leadership. So instead, the college looks at other criteria -- high school records, essays, and interviews.

A FAQ page about Mount Holyoke's decision can be found on the college Web site.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon and welcome. We're pleased to have President Joanne V. Creighton of Mount Holyoke College as a guest today. President Creighton will answer questions about her school's decision to make the SAT optional for incoming students. Please join our discussion!

Potomac, MD: In the near future, do you see many more colleges and universities adopting the same SAT/ACT test policy that you are trying out?

Joanne V. Creighton: We have invited leading colleges throughout the country to take a serious look at what we're doing in making the SAT optional and expect there will be some interest, especially from some small liberal arts institutions, in following our lead. The SAT has been under intense scrutiny for many years and with the publication of Nicholas Lemann's book, THE BIG TEST, there has been a heightened attention to the issue. All of this is to the good.

College Park, MD: Hello Ms Creighton,

Most colleges, including your own, say they want to recruit students who exhibit leadership. Why? Some of the greatest artists, writers and scientists have been rather shy individuals who shone only in their fields.

Joanne V. Creighton: Our definition of leadership is not restricted to any field. In fact, our society is now grappling with ways to broaden the definition of leadership and at Mount Holyoke, our Weissman Center for Leadership is part of this discourse. Excellence in art, music, science is also a form of leadership and essential to the vitality of our society.

Washington, DC: Is there any danger (albeit perhaps very small) that the Admissions Committee will interpret a student's failure to submit her SAT score as a de facto indication that it was low? Could this influence an admittance decision unfavorably?

Joanne V. Creighton: No, each student will be evaluated only on what she submits.

Arlington, VA: Congratulations on the job you've done at MHC so far! Many alums and friends of the college are thoroughly impressed and pleased with its current direction. We are very hopeful for the future and are confident that you can maintain MHC's reputation as one of the top higher learning institutions in the world. We're excited that MHC has chosen to participate in the testing of the SAT as many people, including myself, believe it is not a true indicator of an individual's ability to perform at the next level. Do you think there should be a similar test that keeps some attributes of the SAT (such as certain math sections) but is more essay- or scenario-based? For example, many college seniors are given interviews by potential employers in which they are posed a question designed to assess their thinking process, such as "Give four reasons why manhole covers are round," or "How many jelly beans could fill a 747?" In these questions, test-takers would have to write down their process of figuring out the question. Do you think such logic questions, which don't necessarily have a correct answer, are reasonable for high school seniors and could be incorporated into a SAT-like test? Could they measure a different form of intelligence which seems to be missing from the current form of the SAT? Thanks and best of luck in the future.

Joanne V. Creighton: I agree that the SAT measures a narrow kind of intelligence and an important goal for us is to make sure that highly talented students will consider Mount Holyoke even if one measure does not reflect the range of their strengths. There has been a kind of reductionism in higher education, reducing students and institutions to numbers. We want to make sure that our admissions process is a window into what we value at the College: leadership, artistic ability, motivation, etc. We hope our research will inform others and help to devise appropriate tools to measure the multi-faceted nature of intelligence.

Potomac, MD: Do you personally think that the SAT/ACT is an accurate way of measuring a student's academic ability, or do you feel that it is obsolete?

Joanne V. Creighton: I think the SAT/ACT is a narrow measure of academic aptitude and not a good measure of the range of talent, skill, motivation, and drive that a student may possess. That's why we have moved to make the test optional. We feel that requiring it gives it disproportional emphasis in the perceiver's eye. We are much more interested in the student's performance over time than is how she performs on a three-hour test. Also, there are questions of equity and access with regard to the test. Some students have access to test prep courses and untimed tests, while others do not, making the test less objective than it might be. The College, instead, encourages students to focus on long-term personal and intellectual growth rather than on time-consuming and expensive strategies to raise their scores.

Rockville, MD: Does it occur to you that the optimal strategy for all students is to just take the SAT and only submit the score if it is good?

Joanne V. Creighton: I'm concerned about the hold that this test has on higher education and on students and we hope our research helps to raise serious questions about it. We hear of wonderful students who will not apply to our College and other leading colleges because they assume that their test scores will preclude consideration. That kind of reductionism sells students and institutions short.

Boston, MA: Hello Mrs. Creighton,
I'm a current MHC student and I'm proud that MHC is taking this initiative. I think that is what MHC is known for. We practice what we preach and I'm proud and honored to be part of such a wonderful institution.

Joanne V. Creighton: I'm glad you're pleased. As you know, we considered this move very carefully and did not move forward with it without considerable consultation with students, faculty, trustees, alums, and other members of the Mount Holyoke community. Indeed, this effort grew out of a faculty/student committee's recommendation. Yes, I do think this action is consistent with our mission.

Conway,NH: Do you think by making the SATs optional you might see an increase in minoritiy enrollment?

Joanne V. Creighton: We don't know, and that's one of the issues we'll track during our five-year trial. We do know that there are many different groups who are disadvantaged on this test: rural students, foreign students, first-generation college students, as well as some students of color. SAT performance has been inappropriately used to stigmatize certain groups, an example of the great power this test has over society. Our goal is to attract highly qualified students from across the world and across the country. In fact, international, racial, and ethnic diversity is one of Mount Holyoke's great strengths.

Washington, D.C.: Obviously there are opponents to this admissions practice. Do you feel as if your institution will lose anything, perhaps respectability as a high-quailty academic institution, by adopting this new practice?

Joanne V. Creighton: So far, the reaction has been quite positive. We know that taking this action was not without risk, but we considered it carefully and think it reflects who we are. We want our admissions practice to reflect the mission and values of the institution. The mission is to affirm our commitment to educating a diverse community of women at the highest level of academic excellence and to fostering the alliance of excellent liberal arts education with purposeful engagement with the world. We have always been a leader in higher education. Our founder urged students to "go where no one else will go; do what no one else will do."

Washington, DC: Hello. I'm an alum ('90) and am concerned that this will have a negative impact on the college's competitiveness. By competitiveness, I mean both in attracting high-quality students (lower-performing women will apply because it is "easier to get in") and in the way the college is viewed (judged!) by other institutions and in the acedemic world in general. MHC's acceptance rate is already high... don't you think this will continue to damage the college's reputation as a highly competitive women's Ivy image?

Joanne V. Creighton: We do not expect this move to make us less competitive. We had this year the largest applicant pool in our history. In fact, our numbers of applicants has risen over 45% over the past several years. We have a very rigorous admissions process which includes a comprehensive review of a student's high school record, within the context of the quality of that school. The College's writing requirements for admission are also rigorous and include several essays and the submission of a graded paper. We expect this option to make our selection process even more individualized and competitive. Mount Holyoke continues to hold high stature among American liberal arts institutions.

Springfield, Virginia: I have not, nor have I ever been very good at taking standardized tests, yet I managed to graduate in the top 15% of my class to George Mason University. However, how does a school identify this potential without some indicator of measure? Is weighting an application essay a greater tool a better option rather than relying on an empricial meausre such as the SAT or ACT? Or does experential factors statistically yield more accurate results?

Joanne V. Creighton: There are many people like you. A much better measure of potential than a standardized test is how a student does over a sustained period of time during their course of study in high school. Other key factors are motivation, drive, idealism. None of these are measured by standardized tests.
During the five-year trial period, we will take a hard look at whether there's any difference in the success rates of students who do and do not submit test scores.

Tampa, FL: I think that it is wonderful that Mount Holyoke has decided to take this step in making it optional to submit SAT scores. As a senior in high school, I know that the SAT and ACT do not measure your worth as a student and I commend Mount Holyoke for their commitment to selecting fine, well-rounded, women

Joanne V. Creighton: Thank you. We look forward to your application!

New York, NY: Do you believe that students who come from well to do families generally have higher SAT scores than students who come from economically disadvantaged families? Would you attribute this to their ability to afford high cost SAT prep courses? Was this decision made in order to see whether the makeup of the incoming student body will change?

Joanne V. Creighton: Yes, students from privileged backgrounds are likely to have an advantage, because the test does not measure intelligence pure and simple. One can game the test by taking prep courses and practice sessions. There are questions of fairness and equity raised by these facts. Ironically, the SAT was initially used to open the door to higher education to first-generation students, but now it is closing those very same doors.

Lac du Flambeau, WI: What other selective colleges have dropped the SAT requirement for admissions and what has their experience been in how the applicant pool changed?

Joanne V. Creighton: Other selective colleges with an optional SAT include Bowdoin, Bates, Middlebury, Connecticut College, and Bard College. They have all experienced increases in student quality and applicant pools. We talked with several of them and their experience has influenced our decision. We plan to share our research with them and with other colleges in our cohort.

Gaithersburg, MD.: I know that you have admitted homeschoolers in the past. Since these applicants have no "grades", or their high school program cannot be compared to others from the same school, would you place more emphasis on personal interviews to judge their abilities? (SAT's used to be considered the "proof" that homeschoolers could indeed function in a high pressure/academic arena.)

Joanne V. Creighton: SATs will continue to be required for home-schooled students.

Bethesda, MD: As a recent college applicant and current student at James Madison University, I am familiar with the bias and stressful situation the SAT creates in the lives of many college applicants, specifically those of lower income families. However, the SAT does aid large universities in simplifying the application process. Do you, Ms. Creighton, think it possible for large universities to omit the SAT and find time to carefully examine each application? Perhaps another test should be composed with less bias towards students with lower income backgrounds. What do you think of this proposal and do you know if it's being considered by the College Board?

Joanne V. Creighton: Large schools face considerable challenge in evaluating many applicants, but I believe they should nonetheless seek to find better instruments to measure students' potential. Several are working on this issue and I applaud their efforts.

Joanne V. Creighton: It's been a great pleasure chatting on line. We have posted an SAT information page on the College's Web site. And, in fact, there's an email address for SAT-related questions. I'd like to thank all of you for your time and especially thank the WASHINGTON POST for making this opportunity available. Standarized testing will continue to be a very important issue in our society for years to come. Mount Holyoke is proud to play a role in this national discussion.

washingtonpost.com: Thank you, President Creighton. And thanks to all those who participated in the discussion.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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