"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, March 12, 2007

College Ranking 101

The President of Sarah Lawrence College takes on U.S. News and World Report's college ranking system along with the SAT's. In an Op-Ed in Sunday's Washington Post she explains why Sarah Lawrence stopped using SAT scores in the admission process and how the American public continues to be duped by meaningless numbers and meaningless tests.
Like most college presidents, I have seen many prospective students and their parents show up on campus in recent months, clutching their well-worn copies of U.S. News & World Report's rankings issue. U.S. News has smartly tapped into students' need to sort out colleges and universities in a rational way. Parents, who face increasing college costs, understandably want to know where best to make that expensive investment.

U.S. News benefits from our appetite for shortcuts, sound bites and top-10 lists. The magazine has parlayed the appearance of unbiased measurements into a profitable bottom line.

The problem is that the U.S. News college rankings are far from reliable.

Turns out that some of their numbers are made up. I know that firsthand. Two years ago, we at Sarah Lawrence College decided to stop using SAT scores in our admission process. We didn't make them optional, as some schools do. We simply told our prospective students not to bother sending them. We determined that the best predictors of success at Sarah Lawrence are high school grades in rigorous college-prep courses, teachers' recommendations and extensive writing samples. We are a writing-intensive school, and the information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions.

But this principled decision has put us in jeopardy. I was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students' SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college's ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.

In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number. He made clear to me that he believes that schools that do not use SAT scores in their admission process are admitting less capable students and therefore should lose points on their selectivity index. Our experience, of course, tells us otherwise.

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