This week, the College Board announced changes to the way it administers its standardized tests to university applicants in the United States. The board is dropping the optional essay component of the SAT as well as its subject tests in such fields as chemistry, French and literature.
The board explained it was making the changes to streamline the test-taking process amid the coronavirus pandemic, which it said “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students.”
Stephen Farmer, UVA’s first vice provost for enrollment, talked with UVA Today about what this means for students applying to the University, how standardized test scores fit in with UVA’s admissions process and his excitement at enrolling the Class of 2025, his first at the University.
Q. What was your first reaction when you heard the College Board was dropping the essay and subject tests?
A. I wasn’t surprised. The number of students who have been taking subject tests or completing the optional essay has been dwindling over time.
The change gives the College Board a chance to concentrate on improving the SAT and other offerings, such as Advanced Placement, that are arguably more valuable to students.
I agree with the board that the change simplifies things for students. To the extent that students feel they’re already jumping through a lot of hoops, or to the extent they feel that there are too many hoops available to them and they don’t know which ones to jump through, simplifying the choices can be helpful.
Q. What do the SAT changes mean for students interested in UVA?
A. I think the changes will have probably a very limited practical effect on the way that students apply to Virginia. I do hope the changes will help students remember there are more ways to demonstrate their strengths than just earning strong test scores.
We want to care for every student who applies. We want to see the best in them and we want the best for them. Ideally, the way that we consider students should encourage them to do things that will be in their long-term best interest. We want students to do things that will make them smarter, more creative, more curious. We want students to do things that will keep them healthy. We want them to do things that will be meaningful for themselves and their families and their communities.
We want them to do things that will be worth their time and energy. We don’t want them pursuing credentials or completing tasks just because they believe that we want them to do those things. To the extent that not having to worry about subject tests or about the essay will give them more time to focus on things that really matter, I hope that will be helpful to them.
Q. Critics say the new moves will only place more emphasis on the College Board’s Advanced Placement tests that high school students must pay to take. They say the moves do not address concerns about equity in the testing process.
A. I think that one helpful development over the last several years where the Advanced Placement tests are concerned is that more districts and, in some cases, more states have been funding the exams. That’s removing the financial barrier for students and their families. And in states where that’s happened, participation in exam-taking has increased. I think there are things from a policy point of view that communities can do and that states can do to further level the playing field. I think that’s a good thing for young people. It’s a good thing for schools and teachers and communities.
The equity issues that swirl around testing are real and they’re profound. So, for that matter, are the other inequities in education and opportunity that students and their loved ones have to struggle against every day. I don’t think there’s any single step that the College Board could take, or for that matter, that a school could take, that would completely remedy those inequities. But there are things that schools can do – how we use tests, how we interpret them – that can help minimize the inequities of testing.
Q. What are your thoughts on standardized tests in general?
A. I think standardized tests are a snapshot. At their very best, any test is a snapshot taken at a particular point in time. It never describes the whole of any student – not who they are or where they’ve been and most of all, not where they’re going.
A snapshot can be helpful, but only when we remember what it is and what it isn’t, and only when we consider it alongside a lot of other information.
The real problem with testing, I think, is when people read more into it than we should. It’s important to remember that the test score is a snapshot, and in many cases, one that’s blurry and not crystal-clear. We must remember that it’s a glimpse of a complicated reality and sometimes a distorted glimpse. Remembering those things can make us better users of tests and with the right interpretation, testing can be helpful in evaluating candidates with the care, compassion and respect they deserve. But only with the right interpretation.
Q. So how should admissions officers interpret standardized test scores?
A. I think the first thing is remembering that the test is a crude instrument. A test score is an ax. It’s not a scalpel. You can’t do a lot of fine carving with a test score. One problem with testing is when people think it’s a scalpel, not an ax, and that the difference, for example, between a 1400 score and 1440 SAT score is a material difference. It’s not.
The second thing, really, is to see the test score in light of everything else that we know about the candidate. There’s no abstracting that test score from the complicated reality of a student. We have to see testing in light of everything else we know.
Q. Can you remind our readers the other factors that go into evaluating people who apply to UVA?
A. Sure. We have test scores, when students choose to share them. We have transcripts from the schools the students attend. We have the descriptions of students that counselors and teachers and others provide to us through recommendation letters. We have information about what the student has been involved in and what the student values.
We learn about students through the list of activities they share with us. We have information about how students express themselves through UVA’s application essays; what students care about, how they think, how they feel. We have information about their families, the context within which they’ve grown up and have done their work and developed their gifts and their aspirations.
We know about their communities. The neighborhoods they live in, the towns they live in, the opportunities they’ve had, the obstacles they’ve overcome. We don’t know everything about students and no one who works in admissions should ever pretend that we do. We’re always seeing through a glass darkly. But we really are trying to see and the student we’re trying to see is a whole person who deserves our respect and care, not the sum of a couple of test scores.
I think testing can be a significant part of the whole, it can help us understand a student, but it doesn’t help us understand a student on its own and it doesn’t tell the full story of any student.
Q. UVA began accepting students to the Class of 2025 with its binding early decision cycle in December. That will be followed by more acceptances during early action, typically coming at the end of January and, later, regular decision in March. Do you have any reflections on the Class of 2025, since it will be your first enrolled class?
A. The great people in the Office of Undergraduate Admission have been recruiting this class for a long time. Our colleagues in Student Financial Services are working hard to assess and meet the need of the students we’ve admitted. Our friends in the Office of the University Registrar are making sure students have what they need to register for their courses and navigate their requirements.
So, one of my reflections on this class is that I’m grateful so many good people have been working so hard to welcome this class to the University.
But my second reflection is that I’m really grateful to these students. My first day in the office a few weeks ago, I spent some of it writing to students we had just admitted early decision. I was just thanking them for their commitment to UVA and asking them how we can help them.
We can’t ever take for granted the choice that a student makes to join us, because students have other choices. So, I’m eager to get to know our students and, to the extent that they’ll let me, I’m eager to be a part of their lives. It’s such a privilege to welcome such remarkable people and to watch them flourish and thrive and help each other thrive.
We want to recruit great students who will make each other better; who believe in each other and will treat each other well and will make each other better every day. And I’m confident the Class of 2025 will do that, just as previous classes have.