Podcast: Bob Schaeffer: Fairtest.org

Today I sit down with longtime friend, Bob Schaeffer. Bob is an incredible source of knowledge around how the testing landscape has changed in the last several decades and the work that he and his team at FairTest do is invaluable. Tune in to hear about the test optional movement in college admissions and more!

 

TRANSCRIPT

Bob Schaeffer: 

and test optional admissions allows them to apply when they’re putting their best foot forward their strongest credentials, and to be evaluated, not on how well you fill in bubbles, in three and a half hours.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. Today I’ve got a really great guest who I’ve known for for many years. His name is Bob Schaeffer. And he runs an organization called Fairtest, which is a standardized testing watchdog. And the work that they’ve done over the years is really impactful and quite admirable. And I always follow what he and his team are up to, and the research that they’re putting out because it informs my work with students so much, and informs how I advise families as they’re going through the standardized testing process. So let me tell you a little bit about Bob, and then we’ll go right to the meat of the conversation. Bob Schaeffer is the executive director of fair tests, the National Center for fair and open testing. Previously, he served as research director of the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Human Services and elderly affairs. He was also a staff member of the Education Research Center at MIT, where he was both an undergraduate and graduate student. He’s the author of several books and publications related to fairness in testing, and he is a great advocate for students that have to undergo testing, as you’ll hear in our interview today, so let’s get into it. Bob, thank you so much for joining me today.

Bob Schaeffer: 

Well, thanks for the invitation, Sheila.

Sheila Akbar: 

I always love hearing your perspective. And I think the work that you do is so important. It’s important work. And I think it’s important for people to know about, so let’s start there, tell us what you do. Tell us about your organization. And then we’ll back up and talk about how you got to that point.

Bob Schaeffer: 

Well, I’m currently the Public Education Director at Fairtest, which is a national center for fair and open testing. It’s a 40 plus year old organization created in the mid 1980s, by leaders of national civil rights, education reform student and feminist organizations to serve as the nation’s watchdog over standardized testing. We both monitor what goes on in testing and the companies who do it, as well as advocating for better forms of assessment that are fairer and more relevant.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s great. And do you only focus on the College Testing piece?

Bob Schaeffer: 

No, the College Testing pieces is one large piece. But we also have made your programs around K-12 testing. And I’ve done some work around employment and certification exams from the bar exam, to teacher licensing tests and the like,

Sheila Akbar: 

Oh, that’s very interesting. We’ll get into some of that. So tell us your story. I mean, how did you get into this? What’s your background?

Bob Schaeffer: 

I was kidnapped. The. I’ve never really paid much attention to standardized testing, as a public school student always did very well on it. And one of the people who for whom this test came naturally, and were kind of a game. I did quite well on them. Won some scholarship money because of it. Went to MIT. And after undergraduate school, I worked for two years at the Education Research Center at MIT, which was run by an earlier generation of test critics and assessment. reformers who believe that standardized tests measure did nothing of value, other than your ability to take standardized tests, and had a variety of biases and skews that tilted the playing field against groups who historically had been disenfranchised. And one of the things we did there at MIT education research center, is ran an experimental college within a college in which we had students simultaneously who would nominally matriculated at both MIT, Tufts, UMass Boston, North Shore Community College, and in summers Detroit Institute of Technology. So it’s a largely black school. And, you know, these kids had hugely different testing experiences. And it was very hard to identify once you got them into the program, which ones technically belong to which school that creativity, problem solving ability, the ability to work in teams to solve, to address novel problems, probably didn’t relate to test scores at all. And that opened my eyes. In the advocacy world. I was working at the State House in Massachusetts, definitely a committee and met a young guy who was a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard. And then, several years afterwards, he tracked me down and said he has some money to restart an organization about, focused on standardized testing and what I helped them do that. And I did, I facilitated their first planning meeting which had leaders of a number of national groups that I mentioned. And they decided there needed to be a group. So we set up an organization, Incorporated fair test, hijacked a conference room at the College Board’s National Forum in San Francisco in 1985, and announced that the nation’s test takers now have a new organization to defend their interests, and from their fair test was launched and has continued moving forward to this day. And in the late 80s, we launched what became the test optional admissions movement by doing a report called Beyond standardized tests, admissions alternatives that work that looked at the literal handful of schools that did not require tests, at that time, places like Bowdoin in Maine and Hampshire College and others. And it just grew from there, to the point where test optional admissions is now the new normal. The overwhelming majority of schools of all sorts, do not require the ACT and SAT. But it was a long haul over close to 40 years.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, and certainly was accelerated maybe by by COVID in these last few years.

Bob Schaeffer: 

No doubt about it, when pandemic shutdown testing centers, and totally changed the admissions process, schools felt comfortable enough to start experimenting with test optional admissions, and in most cases, after some disruption to change their processes all around, I have found that it works just like the early adopters had found, and have continued it year after year moving forward. But very few schools, say from my alma mater, returning to testing requirements.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right, right. Well, let’s pause there for a bit. For people who don’t know what test optional means, can you give us a definition and why a school might want to adopt a test optional policy

Bob Schaeffer: 

Test optional means that applicants have the choice of whether to submit SAT or ACT scores or none at all, and that their applications will be treated without advantage or disadvantage, based on whether they choose to submit test scores. In contrast, and particularly for a California audience. There’s test free admissions, which means that test scores will not be considered, even if they’re submitted. The advantages of test optional and test free admissions are multiple fold. For example, kids are identified as being more than a score. They don’t want to be seen as that three digit SATs or or two digit ACT number, they want to be seen as a well rounded, holistic individual. And test optional admissions allows them to apply when they’re putting their best foot forward their strongest credentials, and to be evaluated, not on how well you fill in bubbles, and three and a half hour test. Optional admission is also turns out to be ferrets for more level playing field, standardized tests, whatever they measure are extremely good measures of accumulated opportunity. Over the years, that sort of opportunity that kids accumulate before their birth, being born to do mothers at full gestation, infant full weight, and you know, in toxic free environments, and growing up in households, and book with books and in communities with early childcare, and libraries, and after school opportunities, those kids will score higher than kids who lacked all those things in life. But the tests are not supposed to be measures of what’s happened to you. They’re supposed to be predictors of what you can do. And that’s that kind of measure. They’re very, very weak, high school grades, with all their variation are better predictors of how well someone will do in college than any standardized tests. And standardized tests have built in biases of language of culture of background that end up skewing the playing field further against kids who had no opportunity. So it piles disadvantage on disadvantage by requiring standardized tests and schools that eliminate standardized testing requires generally fine that they get more applicants. They get better academically qualified applicants in terms of grades and course rigor. And they get more diverse applicants of all sorts, gender, race, geography, intellectual interests, special talents, disability, it opens the door by taking down a barrier.

Sheila Akbar: 

Thank you. That’s a wrap Have a comprehensive summary. Of course, I know you can go into a lot more detail on any of those particular issues that you brought up. But we’ll stay at this level for a moment. You mentioned that with the challenges of COVID, no testing centers were able to operate. And it sort of forced the hand of some colleges to go test optional. But the language you used was that they felt comfortable adopting test optional as their policy which suggests that many of them wanted to be test optional, but felt there was some reason they couldn’t. Can you talk about the reasons that that testing apparatus has had such a hold on us as a society of college going students?

Bob Schaeffer: 

Well, for people in my generation, who were the admissions leaders in many schools, SAT or ACT was a standard rite of passage. For adolescents. It’s something you did because you had to do it. And it’s what everybody else in your peer group did. And your faculty, let alone your board of trustees, that this historic requirement was really not necessary. It was not helpful. It was a major lift. But the precedent set by colleges, either, you know, this great liberal arts schools like Owen, and Bates, and others around the country and Pitzer in California, and big, selective national universities like Wake Forest, or Brandeis, or the two years before COVID, the University of Chicago said that, yes, you can do this, and it will work for any type of school anywhere. And you know, there’s not a lot of pushback once you put it into place. And so we know of a number of schools, which were in the process of evaluating their test score requirements, who were forced to make that decision more quickly, by COVID, on lack of test scores, and some admissions directors are grateful for that, as awful as the pandemic was it forced the hand and resulted in quicker decisions. But you know, about half of all schools, just under half, pre pandemic, more than half of the top 100 or so liberal arts colleges, were test optional. And even without the pandemic, it’s likely that between two thirds and three quarters of all schools would be test optional. Right now. For example, the University of California system, arguably the nation’s most prestigious public system was on a path to reevaluate their use of test scores and litigation had been filed to force their hand which were deeply involved in pre COVID. So hard to write history, but we would have been in a largely test optional world.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I remember before the pandemic, it was accelerating. I mean, I am on a listserv with you. And I felt like every day there were two or three notifications from your team saying the school is now test optional. This school is now test optional. And that was a clear trend that that was accelerating.

Bob Schaeffer: 

You’re right 2019, the year before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, was the best year and it was accelerating, both due to schools being able to look at peer institutions say hey, and works for them. We can do it here. And outside factors like the varsity blues scandal, which reminded people that the test score game was one that could be corrupted by people with money and advantage. And, you know, so it was, it was moving forward, it was the best year ever, pre pandemic was a year before the pandemic

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. Now, one of the things you said when you were defining test optional for us was that students can choose whether to submit scores or not submit scores and face no advantage or disadvantage in the process. And I think this is where things get a little bit confusing for families. So you know, if it doesn’t advantage you or disadvantage you Why Why have the option? And is there some element of a college not really telling you the full truth if they say their tests optional, but we see the data that students with test scores have a slightly higher acceptance rate than students without?

Bob Schaeffer: 

Let me like tackle the last part of that. First. Yes, students with test scores at many schools have a higher acceptance rate. Those same students have on average, higher grades, and better academic records. You need to factor out those those other important characteristics to make a judgement. John Burdick, who recently stepped down as admissions enrollment VP at Cornell did a nice dissection of that and showed that in fact, there was no advantage at submitting test scores among kids with equal records at his school. And when parents and older siblings have gone through the admissions process with the testing requirement, it’s hard for the the younger brothers and sisters to understand that it’s now a different world. but it really is, I guess had it, you know, it’s anecdotal, but hundreds of colleges signed a statement saying optional means optional. And I know and I’ve been on panels with dozens, if not hundreds of hundreds of admissions leaders. And I trust those folks. They say that they built their processes. So that, you know, there are separate tracks for those for submitters and non submitters of test scores as they’re calling the profession, and that they do indeed get separate reviews in which whether you the choice of test scores, submission doesn’t matter, materially. Now, somebody who submits an awful scale for a very low score at an optional institution is not helping themselves. You don’t put red flags in your application folder, and someone who with a mediocre high school record, and very strong test scores, probably is helped by submitting, but that for the vast majority of applicants, test scores don’t matter. Right.

Sheila Akbar: 

And that’s, I think the thing that I always encourage families to start with, are these test scores going to help you in some way? Can you score high enough that this will be an impressive, crowning achievement on your academic record? Are you going to score so low that it raises eyebrows? Is this something that you have the time for? Is it going to take your focus off of something that could really help you more than one or two extra points on the ACT or whatever it is on the SATs? So

Bob Schaeffer: 

Yes, that is a very good advice. Sheila.

Sheila Akbar: 

Thank you, I appreciate that. So let’s switch tacks a little because I know you’ve done some work around this as well recently with the SCOTUS decision around race conscious admissions practices tell us the involvement of test scores in that whole constellation of issues.

Bob Schaeffer: 

Well, Fairtest submitted an amicus brief, along with the group’s asus except in the Auburn and North Carolina cases, which were recently decided, and we had an even more detailed amicus brief in the Gruder case that Michigan cases years ago, in which we argued historically that affirmative action was justified as a counterbalance to the bias built into standardized testing that standardized tests create head headwinds for African Americans, Latinos, new Asian immigrants, Native Americans. And this was a check and balance on that. And the more reason case, we argued that affirmative action made sense as a limited factor in the admissions process, we as we expected with the ideological composition of the US Supreme Court being lost. And so we’ve done a number of webinars, arguing that schools should heed the court’s ruling that racially conscious factors in the admissions process should be removed. And that includes test scores, which are very clearly linked to race and class. And that means going test optional or tests free. That really means removing testing requirements for things like advanced placement, to give kids a leg up, because AP courses aren’t even given in a third of us schools, typically schools serving low income and other disenfranchised communities. And it means in particular, moving forward removing test score requirements from so called merit scholarships, because they end up being reverse Robin Hood programs, which give money mostly to kids from affluent families who need it the least, because they’re the ones who have higher test scores, very strong correlation between socioeconomic status equals wealth or income and and test scored averages.

Sheila Akbar: 

So where do you see the focus of your organization being in the next, let’s say, five years?

Bob Schaeffer: 

Well, in terms of higher education, maintaining test optional, as in score free as the new normal for fall 2024 think we just we just updated a 1966 of the nation’s about 2275 schools do not require test scores from all or most applicants for fall 2024. And we’re working hard to make sure that they extend those policies for many more years. So they can study the results. And look at the data and see that it works, or to go make go test optional permanently, as about 1500 colleges and universities already have and then extend the test the no testing policy to financial aid for an increasing percentage of kids. There’s a seed out there for you somewhere in college, but not necessarily the tuition check to pay for it. And it’s you know, Without money, acceptance is meaningless for many low income kids. So we’re going to focus more and more on trying to eliminate test score based scholarship aid, both from individual institutions, and in a number of states, where low income taxpayers who played lotteries or you’re charged sales tax fees, and up funding, tuition aid, scholarships for wealthy kids.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right, right. Yeah, to look at that pipeline, it is it is quite disturbing of where that money comes from and where it goes.

Bob Schaeffer: 

Yeah, I mean, you know, the affluent kids from affluent families have more than enough advantages already. They including test prep, they don’t need programs that give them awards for where they were born.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. And I think one of the I mean, certainly your entire team is doing very valuable work. And I thank you for all of your service over all the years. I also want families to know that one of the most valuable resources on your webpage is a list of schools that are test optional. And that’s updated regularly.

Bob Schaeffer: 

We have the definitive list of schools with test optional or test free policies, we show online, how long those policies run, if there are limits. We link wherever we can to that policy on the college or university’s website. So that kids, their parents, there are other other stakeholders and those they rely on, particularly, college counselors can have the most accurate and up to date information that is available for free at fairtest.org.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, and that’s a resource I check, often, because it is a changing landscape. And so I really appreciate the work that you do there. Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Bob, thank you so much for your time and again for all the work that you do.

Bob Schaeffer: 

Thank you very much. Good luck to you.

Sheila Akbar: 

Thanks. All right, folks. I hope that was enlightening. Clearly, there is a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to standardized testing. So I encourage you not to take anything at face value if you are considering a standardized test, whether that’s an SSAT and ISEE LSAT, ACT LSAT, GMAT, MCAT GRE and there are so many others. There’s a lot at play, and you don’t have to know all of the nuances to make decisions about how to move through testing. But it’s good to know that there’s somebody who’s looking out for you, and trying to remove barriers to entry. So check out Bob’s work again, fairtest.org and hope you tune in next time. Thanks

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