In a post on Friday, I described how Wake Forest University’s test-optional policy—and its commitment to interview most applicants—had both inspired and exhausted admissions officers in Winston-Salem. These descriptions came from a new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, which includes a chapter by Martha Allman, the university’s dean of admissions, who described how her staff has sought to “expand the definition of merit to a whole new level.”
This article in Sunday’s Washington Post reminded me of how tricky that definition can be—and of why the continuing debate over the use of standardized admissions tests is so important. The article describes how educators in elementary and high schools are confronting the “gifted gap” in Washington-area schools, where, though most students are black or Hispanic, most students in gifted classes are white.
Intelligence tests figure prominently in this disparity, the Post reports: “Students living in poverty, particularly those whose parents are uneducated or speak English as a second language, are less likely to develop verbal skills measured by traditional intelligence tests. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gifted.” And so some school officials are grappling with the very definition of “gifted,” revising tests, and changing the referral process by which parents and teachers direct students to gifted programs.
The catch, of course, is that not all students have the same opportunities or an equal degree of savvy. The Post quoted one education expert who said of families living in Alexandria, Va.: ”There are parts of the city where parents have never considered that their kids might be gifted. No one has ever told them.”
The persistent challenges described in this article will have repercussions for the 21st-century admissions officer during an era of major demographic changes. Many colleges are seeing more and more applicants who don’t look or talk like the white, affluent students who so often fit the traditional definition of “gifted.” How much should the traditional metrics of merit in admissions change to reflect the diversity of backgrounds and talents out there?
Whatever your view of the issue is, this article provides a good reminder that an applicant’s record—test scores as well as courses taken or passed over—reflects many things. Among them are circumstances beyond the student’s control.