When Jon Erickson joined the ACT, in 1984, the college-admissions process was not yet a front-page fixation. These days, he can’t go to a dinner party without anxious parents asking him to explain the secret recipe for conquering the ACT and getting into a big-name college.
In an interview this week, Mr. Erickson, president of the Iowa-based nonprofit organization, reflected on the admissions field and the role that standardized tests play within it. Mr. Erickson, 61, plans to retire on September 1. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in college admissions over the last 30 years?
A. Way back when, marketing was a dirty word. It’s now a household word. Colleges are positioning themselves, working funnels and complex statistical models, as they have felt the pressure of competition. It seemed much more collegial than it is today.
Q. How do standardized tests fit in with that? How are we thinking about admissions tests differently today than we did before?
A. There’s always been two different camps with testing. One, the institutions that were using tests as part of a screening, and the other, those institutions that were using tests more for placement and advising. Now, colleges are also using tests for recruitment purposes. Everybody wants the best class they can find, and test scores are one way to measure that.
Q. To what extent do you think colleges, states, and scholarship agencies misuse test scores?
A. We spend a tremendous amount of time educating folks on what the test measures and what research says about how to use it. My gut says that it’s never enough. We always say multiple measures are necessary. You should never make decisions around one piece of information.
Q. Higher education, like the nation itself, seems to have a love-hate relationship with its big tests. Why is that?
A. Tests are like taxes. They’re easy to hate, and nobody likes taking them or paying them. Somehow over time the perception became stronger, as institutions became a little firmer in their requirements, that tests are a huge piece of the admission formula. There’s a general perception with parents and students that it all comes down to a number that’s going to get you in, or not, based on the test.
Q. But at many selective colleges, tests are, in fact, a big piece of the admission formula, as research by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows.
A. Yes, it is still a valuable element in admissions, next to high-school grades. The two together remain the best predictors. But there might have been more blind faith in tests in the past, an over-reliance in the test being a perfect measure. Today, there’s a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the instruments.
Q. So you don’t agree with those who say that testing plays too large a role in college admissions?
A. I’d say no. It’s one quality measure. I still see the high-school record and transcript as being definitive. That’s long-term behavior, which is typically your best predictor. But tests give you some control over variability. I think what’s forgotten is that tests are what get some students into college when their grades and high-school courses wouldn’t have. It does get students, including low-income and first-generation students, into a pipeline, connecting them to higher education.
Q. Fair enough, ACT or SAT scores can put some students on colleges’ radar screens. But test scores can undersell other students’ potential, especially those who come from low-income families. What kind of responsibility do organizations that create and sell standardized tests have to mitigate that problem?
A. I think about this question every day. There isn’t a measure that takes the socioeconomic factor out of the equation, there’s no magic pill that’s going to put everyone on even ground. The biggest problem is that our country is unequal, and in some places there’s less commitment to education, less time devoted to supporting students, less money to buy resources, less family time doing educational things outside of school. All of those things are really huge to me. We’re trying really hard to be one more voice talking about those gaps and why they need to be closed. We’ve created a unit focusing on underserved students, we’re giving away names for free for recruitment purposes.
Something I hope holds promise is a more-holistic view of students, so that we’re looking at them not just through the achievement lens of reading, science, and math, but also at their academic behaviors, interests, and goals. I believe that holds some promise not just for counseling but also for admissions.
Q. In other words, you see potential in so-called noncognitive assessments? Is there a specific quality, like leadership, that you think tests could reliably measure?
A. One piece that’s still a challenge is that grit skills, if you will, are easy to fake or game. So I’m not ready to say we can use measures of grit in high-stakes admissions decisions, but they can at least inform advising and counseling.
Q. What are the most meaningful testing innovations that you see coming? How might the experience of taking the ACT change for students?
A. One will be results turned around almost immediately, with better personalization and diagnostics telling students the skills they need to work on. There may be a time not too far away when admissions testing blends into formative testing in K-12, where it’s more of an educational activity rather than a number sent to a student: Here are your strengths, here’s what you need to work on, here’s how you can work on them, and maybe even a list of colleges that might seem like a good fit to explore. That’s a big frontier.
Q. OK, I have to ask: Do you have the exam dream, the anxiety dream that’s so common?
A. My two dreams have always been that I can’t remember the combination to my locker, and the other is that I just found out I registered for a course that I hadn’t attended all year. I don’t have the testing dream, and it’s not because I like tests. But I never feared tests. I think the stress comes from fearing the test, and my advice to students is, ‘Don’t fear the test.’
Q. Is that an unintended endorsement of test prep?
A. I’m not a big test-prep believer. I think test prep is primarily what we do in school.
Q. So would it surprise you to hear that at this very moment I’m about to go across town to meet with two test-prep experts?
A. (Laughs) Is this for an interview, or for your son or daughter?
Q. It’s for an interview.
A. OK, then I’ll give you some room on that.
Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is email@example.com.