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Task force on admissions process affirms strengths of “holistic” approach at The University of Texas at Austin

A special task force review has determined that the “holistic” approach adopted in 1997 by The University of Texas at Austin to de-emphasize standardized tests in its admissions process is a fair and effective system that should not be changed.

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AUSTIN, TexasA special task force review has determined that the “holistic” approach adopted in 1997 by The University of Texas at Austin to de-emphasize standardized tests in its admissions process is a fair and effective system that should not be changed.

The “holistic” approach to admissions uses several factors other than test scores to determine whether or not an applicant should be admitted, said Dr. Bruce Walker, director of admissions and chairman of the university’s Task Force on Standardized College Admissions Testing.

“We found the balance between test scores and other measures of student merit,” said Walker. “The ultimate verification of our process is the diversity, the academic strength and the staying power of our students.”

He noted, for example, that the retention rate at The University of Texas at Austin (the percentage of freshmen returning for their sophomore year) increased from 87.9 percent in 1996 to a rate of 92 percent for the Class of 2000.

He said the six-person task force determined that the “holistic” approach to admissions yields students with a variety of desirable qualities in addition to high scores on standardized tests. Prior to 1997, admission was based almost entirely on high school rank and scores on standardized tests.

Variables in the “holistic” approach include the student’s high academic record that includes class rank, completion of high school curriculum required by The University of Texas at Austin and the extent to which the student exceeded the university’s required units. Among the “personal achievement” variables considered are the student’s record for leadership, awards, extracurricular activities, work experience, socio-economic status of the family and school attended, and other factors. Students also must demonstrate their writing ability on two essays.

The task force was created in the summer of 2001 by Dr. Larry R. Faulkner, president of The University of Texas at Austin, to study the admissions process for the period 1996 through 2000. He told the members their objective was to consider the role that standardized test scores play in the university’s admissions process and to insure continued fairness in this process for prospective students. Faulkner made it clear he had no preconceived ideas about how strong a role admissions tests should play and simply wanted an assessment of the facts with any recommendations about their continued use.

Faulkner appointed the task force after a lecture by Dr. Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California System, in which Atkinson concluded that America’s overemphasis on the SAT I: Reasoning Test is compromising the nation’s educational system. Among other things, Atkinson called for the use of five SAT II Subject Tests (previously called the “Achievement Tests”) in the admissions process instead of the more common SAT I: Reasoning Test.

The task force, however, determined that the small differences in predictive validity between the SAT I and SAT II, and even smaller differences between SAT II and the ACT, “are insufficient for this task force to recommend the use of the SAT II in the area of admissions.”

The task force recommended continued use of ACT and SAT I standardized tests in assessing the academic aspects of a student’s qualifications for admission. It also recommended against the use of SAT II: Subject Tests as a part of the admissions process because the marginal difference in predictive validity does not warrant the additional costs to students nor the costs associated with the major systems changes that would be required. SAT II Math and Writing tests have served the university well in course placement and should continue to be used for that purpose, the task force said.

The predictive power of the ACT Assessment and the SAT I were validated through research conducted on campus by the university’s Office of Admissions Research and the Measurement and Evaluation Center, and externally by ACT, Inc., and the College Board/Educational Testing Service. These validity studies are on-going.

Among other issues studied by the task force were the possible effects of “coaching” or test preparation. The question was whether test takers from poor homes those not able to afford expensive prep classes or tutors were at an unacceptable disadvantage.

The task force found that while there is a dearth of independent and credible research in this area, what is now available strongly suggests that the effect of coaching on the SAT I and the ACT Assessment is minimal and within the standard of error of measurements of the tests. Because the reliability of both tests is high (about .92 for the SAT I and .96 for the ACT), there is no credible evidence that re-testing has consistently significant benefits for students, the task force said.

“Neither coaching nor re-testing has as much effect on raising scores as do decisions by students to prepare themselves for college by taking the most challenging coursework available to them,” the task force reported.

“The message to students, parents and school officials from the task force is that the best way for students to prepare for admission to The University of Texas at Austin is to take the curriculum we recommend and earn grades that place them at the top of their class. They should learn to write effective, well developed essays and become involved in making their school and community better. Students who spend any significant time preparing for tests rather than all of the above are not using their time wisely,” Walker said.

Members of the task force headed by Walker included Dr. Judy Ashcroft, associate vice president and director of the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment; Dr. Larry D. Carver, professor in the Department of English; Dr. Patrick Davis, professor in the College of Pharmacy; Dr. Lodis Rhodes, professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs; Gerald Torres, professor in the School of Law, and Gary M. Lavergne, director of admissions research.