Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. (Al Ferreira/courtesy Trinity)

By David Rosen

Every year around this time U.S. News & World Report issues its ranked list of America’s “best” colleges. And every year an inevitable handwringing ensues – among academics, anyway – about what the rankings mean, and whether they’re of any use at all. Pose this question to most professionals in higher education, and you’ll likely get a resounding “no.” The flat numerical scores, which receive the most attention, say little about what makes any college or university
good or bad. The rankings say less still about the alchemy that makes a school the right “fit” for any given student. On the other hand, many high school seniors (and their parents) take the rankings seriously – which means, in turn, that college admissions officers and marketers need to take them seriously as well. It’s a good bet that Princeton’s current No. 1 status will find its way into the university’s advertising materials posthaste.

So it goes every year. This time around, however, the questions about the U.S. News lists have suddenly seemed more pressing and personal – because Trinity College, where I teach, has found itself demoted from 38th to 44th place among small colleges. When something bad like this happens, it makes sense to figure out what went wrong. In this case, the question of “what went wrong” is surprisingly fraught, and speaks to some deep divides in American education.

To take a step back: U.S. News assesses schools according to multiple criteria, like class size, graduation rate, alumni giving, and so on. A school gets a “grade” in each of these areas, and then those grades are added up to produce a final score. When a colleague of mine crunched the numbers this year, he found that Trinity had improved over last year in several areas, but that the drop to 44th boiled down to only two criteria: declines in “faculty resources” (i.e. salaries,
mainly) and student “selectivity.” Although I’m certainly interested in the first of these, it’s the latter that bears close examination. Our drop in “selectivity” was a direct consequence of our decision, two years ago, to go “test optional.” Unfortunately, if a college reports the scores of fewer than 75 percent of its incoming students, U.S. News discounts the subset of reported scores by 15 percent. This decision largely drove Trinity’s drop in “selectivity” from 43rd to 73rd place.

Whatever else one says about the SAT, there is one thing that it measures perfectly: a student’s ability to take the SAT. Beyond that, there’s considerable debate about what, precisely, a score on the SAT (or its cousin, the ACT) actually indicates. It is by no means clear that standardized tests accurately measure a student’s abilities, still less that student’s aptitude for college. On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that the SAT discriminates against various types of student.

Most obviously, this would include kids from underserved populations, who might lack the wherewithal to purchase intensive test preparation. But there also are plenty of high schoolers who, while smart and creative, are simply not great test takers: the SAT has no way of seeing these students for who they are. Given these concerns, and in the hope that we might both diversify and enliven our student body, Trinity decided to follow the examples of Smith, Bryn
Mawr and Bowdoin, and drop the SAT/ACT requirement.

The results are still coming in, but most indications suggest that the strategy has worked. My evidence for this claim is personal and anecdotal. Namely, the first-year seminar I have been teaching this fall is probably the most impressive, student-for-student, that I have taught in 15 years at Trinity. And when I talk with colleagues around campus, I hear the same story over and over – that their first-years and sophomores are intellectually engaged, creative, openminded,
motivated, and respectful of their peers in numbers that those colleagues haven’t seen in years, if ever. Trinity feels like a place where the campus culture is transforming itself quickly, and in exciting ways – which makes the prospect of the experiment abruptly ending all the more painful.

That is to say: the pressure to “improve” in the U.S. News rankings is immense. The only problem is that making Trinity “better” according to U.S. News, would in actuality make it worse. However jaundiced or dismissive one wishes to be about the rankings, Trinity is experiencing a concrete instance of the report’s capacity to inflict grievous harm.

When Trinity’s president and director of admissions made the decision to go test-optional, it was both a principled, ethical choice and a calculated roll of the dice. Knowing full well that U.S. News would punish the college for its move, they reasoned that a more diverse student body would drive improvement in other criteria – like quality of student life and national reputation (and perhaps, down the line, alumni engagement). There’s good reason to think that the
experiment, should it be allowed to continue, would achieve these goals. By the same token, however, Trinity’s plummeting further in national rankings, especially if it sank lower than 50th place, would have disastrous consequences.

Where Bowdoin and Smith, perennially in the “top dozen,” can safely ignore U.S. News, Trinity has no such luxury – and so, there are compelling
reasons to go back to the tests. It’s a Catch-22, and those entrusted with the stewardship of the institution – the president and trustees – are left to make a nearly impossible decision. Meanwhile, the larger question needs to be asked: why does U.S. News punish test-optional schools in the first place? U.S. News’s barrage of statistics (all those numbers!) gives it a patina of scientific objectivity.

Which, of course, is nonsense. Behind each one of those criteria lies a value judgment, and behind that, an ideology. In the test-optional controversy, we can see an ideological split that runs through the entirety of American education. On one side, there are those who believe that student learning can be quantified through standardized testing. This belief in quantitative assessment drives the priorities of much primary and secondary education (i.e. “teaching to the test”), and also happens to underlie a multi-billion dollar industry.

On the other side are those who wonder whether there might be better ways than intensive drilling and assessment to cultivate the next generation of American citizens. In this debate, U. S. News is anything but a neutral observer: its business is numbers, and it would be bad for business to credit the test-optional experiment. As long as U.S. News retains its prestige and authority, this unacknowledged bias will continue to exert a potentially harmful influence on higher education. However schools like Trinity may suffer, moreover, the ultimate victims will be the students themselves.

David Rosen is a professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has been on its faculty since 2002.

The Post asked Trinity for a response to concerns about whether the college would consider ending the test-optional policy. College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney wrote: “The academic quality of Trinity College’s student body has risen significantly since we went test-optional two years ago. We have no intention of abandoning our path—our students are simply too good.”