Fairness in Testing

Ensuring every student receives a fair and equitable testing experience.

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Fairness in Testing

EMA is committed to fairness and equity in the enrollment process. We work diligently to reduce bias in our test questions. Each question receives a full review by our staff, test developers, and external review panels. 

We use the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing and best practices on the proper use of test scores as defined by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) to guide our day-to-day decision making and work related to all aspects of testing.

Standards Matter

With a reliable test of cognitive skills, enrollment leaders can compare applicants from a variety of diverse backgrounds to find the best-fit students to succeed at their schools. At EMA, we believe that when standardized testing is part of a thoughtful, integrated process, bias in the admission process is reduced. 

From our Board of Trustees to every member of our staff, we adhere to strict test development practices and strive to guide independent school leaders on the fair and equitable use of standardized test scores in their admissions processes.

Learn more about EMA’s position in our Board of Trustees’ statement on fairness and equity.

Well-designed tests do not create differences; they only measure differences.

Dr. Keith Wright
Senior Director of Assessment & Psychometrics
The Enrollment Management Association

EMA and Assessments

When it comes to the admissions process, opinions around using high-stakes, standardized testing are as different as the population. Concerns of fairness, equity, access, and objectivity relating to standardized testing are key topics in education. However, there’s one thing that opponents and proponents alike can agree on: standardized test scores alone should not be the deciding factor in an admissions decision. Instead, scores should be treated as one component within a holistic process.

At The Enrollment Management Association (EMA), we believe standardized tests are merely instruments to compare student results using a single test of equivalent questions taken under similar circumstances. Here are some key truths about EMA and our assessments:

Admission officers have the opportunity to examine test scores at both a national AND local level to compare students against their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, thereby reducing bias.

A Los Angeles Times article validates this: “That process results in higher admission rates for less-advantaged applicants for any given test score, a finding that faculty review committee members said surprised them. Among students with SAT scores of 1000 — the 40th percentile — half of Latinos were admitted compared to less than one-third of whites. The review found similar advantages for students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.”1

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Fact 1

Standardized Tests Are Valuable Tools in Efforts to Reduce Bias

There are tons of multi-purpose options.

While some people believe that standardized tests are intended to predict long-term success, these assessments are actually designed to predict a student’s success in the first year after the test is taken. However, standardized admission tests have vast amounts of validity evidence supporting the link between test scores and life outcomes. More than 3,000 studies involving over 600,000 individuals show a positive relationship between test scores and life success, especially in high-complexity jobs.2

In their 2018 policy brief How much should we rely on student test achievement as a measure of success?, Dan Goldhaber and Umut Özek state, “students who score one standard deviation higher on math tests at the end of high school have been shown to earn 12% more annually, or $3,600 for each year of work life in 2001."3

That’s not to say scores are the only predictor for success. Affluence, motivation, and aptitude are important factors as well, which is why it’s important to take a holistic approach to admissions decisions.

How it Works

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Fact 2

Test Scores Accurately Predict First-Year Academic Success

There are tons of multi-purpose options.

Behind every EMA assessment is a team of professionals dedicated to the goal of equity, fairness, and inclusion. There are subject matter experts, who bring their best thinking and expertise to build a blueprint to help enrollment offices understand if students will perform well in their schools. There are psychometricians and test developers, who spend hours constructing and analyzing test questions and scores to maintain a high level of quality and fairness, adapting state and federal educational requirements and benchmarks into unbiased learning measurements, carefully calculating and adjusting the variability of raw scores into a standardized scale to ensure score comparability. There are researchers who conduct studies and stay abreast of current trends, policies, and requirements.

These professionals remain committed to EMA’s mission of ensuring that every student has an opportunity to a quality education regardless of demographics.

How it Works

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Fact 3

EMA Assessments Are Created by Highly Skilled Professionals Dedicated to Quality and Fairness

There are tons of multi-purpose options.

Parents put so much pressure on their children to ace high-stakes admission tests, and for good reason. Test scores matter, but in context to many other important attributes. No test score will EVER tell anyone all that they need to know about a child. To get a well-rounded view of prospective students, EMA encourages admission officers to look at a variety of factors, such as academic performance at school, personal interviews, character skills, recommendations from current teachers, and extracurricular activities, to name a few. This is what is meant by a holistic approach to admissions, something EMA is committed to and why EMA develops tools like the Character Skills Snapshot.

How it Works

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Fact 4

Test Scores Are Just One Factor in a Holistic Admission Decision

There are tons of multi-purpose options.

It takes guidance and training to properly use scores as one piece of the enrollment process.


EMA is committed to helping schools develop and enhance their enrollment practices through training, support, and admission tools, such as the SSAT, the Character Skills Snapshot, the Standard Application Online (SAO), and Student Prospect Lists (SPL). EMA Member Services representatives can help schools create a customized enrollment process that best suits the individual school’s admissions needs.

For more information, contact a representative.

How it Works

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Our Commitment

There are tons of multi-purpose options.
  1. Wantanabe, T. (2020, February). UC should keep SAT and ACT as admission requirements, faculty report says. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-02-03/uc-should-keep-sat-and-act-as-admission-requirements-faculty-report-says
  2. Kuncel, N.R. (2014, June 26). Do standardized tests matter? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv_Cr1a6rj4
  3. Goldhaber, D., & Özek, U. (2018). How much should we rely on student test achievement as a measure of success? (CALDER Opinion Brief 12-1118-1). Retrieved from http://caldercouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/CALDER-Policy-Brief-12-1118-1.pdf
How it Works

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Footnotes

There are tons of multi-purpose options.

Struggling to explain the importance of standardized test scores?

We know your job is to make the most informed decision on each applicant with the data in each student’s admission file. And, it's our job to provide you with the right strategic tools, smart insights, and unmatched support to make those decisions with confidence so that you can succeed as an independent school enrollment leader. We’re here to assist you in whatever way your school needs, through science, research, and training.

Contact Us

If you have specific questions about fairness in testing or how EMA ensures fairness in testing; need support or resources, like key talking points, to help you explain the value of standardized testing inside a holistic process; or other questions related to equity in testing, let us help.
 
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The Enrollment Management Association
862 Route 518
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Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when you eliminate admission testing requirements?

While the stated goal from many test-optional schools is to increase the diversity of their applicants, research from higher education suggests that elimination of testing will not help to achieve that goal. By eliminating testing requirements, EMA’s member schools lose important science-based data to evaluate student readiness for their programs. School admission leaders will, then, rely on subjective criteria (grades, teacher recommendations, etc.), which can be affected by undue influence of parents and uneven teacher grading practices, as well as inconsistent academic standards from school to school. Without an objective measure like the SSAT, schools’ reliance on this subjective criteria could contribute to inequity.

What is the benefit of going test-optional or test blind?

Some of EMA’s schools have made the decision to move from requiring admission testing this year due to the upsetting physical limitations brought by COVID-19. There are very real and legitimate concerns around access to testing sites. At EMA, we have addressed those concerns with new testing modes that do away with large-group, in-person administrations.

We want to make it easier for students to access our assessment, so we’ve developed the SSAT at Home, a secure, convenient option that lets students test from home. Available beginning this fall, SSAT at Home provides our member schools the same level of insight as our traditional paper-based test, without the risks of group gatherings.

Does test-optional work?

EMA’s board has a trustee who has long implemented a test-optional strategy. She advocates that students should be able to share an application file that they are proud of, regardless of whether it includes test results. Over the years, she has refined her research and process for students who do not submit test scores in order to consistently review student applicants in spite of the absence of testing. We understand this thinking and believe students should be able to offer their admission file for review without worries about undue reliance on test scores; all students should be guaranteed holistic, individual reviews of their files. However, if scores are not in the file, we suggest that schools find a science-based way to replace that piece of data with an equivalent.

What are the impacts of going test-optional or test blind?

The stated goal for most institutions going test-optional or test blind is one of educational access and concerns about inherent inequity in the U.S. educational system, which results in lower test scores for various student subgroups. At EMA, we know that our admission and enrollment professionals are committed to holistic applicant review and understand the nuances of a student’s experience as they read files and render a decision. Many students from underserved schools, or those facing external pressures that hamper academic performance, can distinguish themselves through the SSAT. Indeed, we are proud of numerous leaders in this country who did just that years ago, when they took the SSAT that opened doors to private education and a purpose-filled life.

What practices should I develop or adopt if my Head requires us to drop testing?

At EMA, we are working with schools who have made the decision to move to a test-optional or test-blind approach. We advocate the use of an alternate assessment that measures character skills in your applicants (the Character Skills Snapshot) and we have developed professional development and training opportunities for admission and enrollment leaders who must rethink their processes without testing included.

EMA is dedicated to helping member schools create enrollment processes that serve the needs of the school and the student. We encourage you to engage with us about the pros and cons inherent in such a decision. We will help you to build the best process possible without testing, should you decide that is the best pathway for your school.

Are there other standard methods to assess each independent school applicant’s cognitive ability?

We are obviously pretty bullish on the SSAT. We know of no other assessment based in research and science that: is regularly reviewed by a diverse independent school teacher panel to ensure ongoing quality; offers the level of predictiveness of the SSAT due to constant research and careful test development; offers scientific validity that exceeds its higher education counterparts and continually is named by our members as their most valued tool offered by our association. Again, while we support all schools in their self determination for a process which works best for their needs, we advocate that the removal of SSAT scores may potentially create less-informed enrollment decisions.The standards advocated inside the SSAT’s blueprint align with the academic standards expected in our member schools. Without standard measurement, schools will not have a consistent piece of data on each applicant. Grades are open to bias and have been rising since the Vietnam War in the United States (in an effort to keep more students at home). Recent research suggests that grade inflation in private schools is a concerning new trend.

Is there a way to draw conclusions around the accuracy of the correlation between SSAT scores and first-year success?

Yes. The SSAT helps determine if a student is a right fit for your school environment and will be able to perform to the best of their abilities right away. The SSAT is not designed to foretell more than that one year of a student’s academic success.

Why is differentiation important? Why should we rate and rank students in our process?

The rating and ranking of students happens every year in your admission office and the SSAT allows you to know better which students will be successful in your academic program during their first year. The SSAT is one tool to help you make such hard decisions and it allows you to stand behind those decisions with science-based data. In a year of disruptions in transcripts, grades, and teacher recommendations due to COVID-19, we believe SSAT data may prove more valuable than ever before. Many school admission leaders are planning for virtual operation this year, and one challenge for reading files will be to understand the growing academic deficit from spring 2020’s abrupt pivot to remote learning. SSAT scores will allow you to better know if students are meeting important standards in reading, comprehension, and quantitative ability.

Isn’t it time to recognize that testing is an inherently flawed measurement, and one that perpetuates inequality in education?

There is no doubt that the concept of testing, in general, is under scrutiny. We believe that this is part of a wider trend of using limited, anecdotally driven observations to question scientifically proven issues.

Consider the parallels to healthcare.

Testing within healthcare is universally proven, and an ingrained part of the diagnostic process. Absent testing data from diagnostics like blood tests or x-rays, physicians cannot make a fully informed diagnosis.

Tests confirm what doctors initially diagnose and sometimes reveal new areas of interest for the doctor and patient. These same concepts can be applied to admission testing and the admission process. Testing, when done well and properly managed, adds important information for understanding student academic readiness. Certainly, testing does not provide all of the necessary information but gives standardized data to the admission professional.

At EMA, we work diligently to ensure there is no bias in our test questions. Each SSAT receives numerous reviews by our staff, test developers, and external review panels. We test all questions before using them in order to look for different performances among various subgroups, and we eliminate or revise questions with disparate performance.

Just as blood tests in healthcare do not cause illness, we hold that testing does not promote inequality in education, but simply measures it. In healthcare, numerous racial subgroups see worse trends with most diseases, and we see those same trends in our macro data. It is incredibly important for admission professionals to understand that nuance — the tests reveal inequities in our system. The tests themselves are not biased nor tools of a meritocracy intent on remaining inclusive. Indeed, the history of standardized admission testing is just the opposite and was meant to broaden access to institutions of higher learning.

How do I address issues of equity and justice if my school chooses to continue testing?

First, we believe that the more voices that join in the call for justice and equity, the faster change will occur. We believe all EMA member schools are committed to creating access into their schools and this is an important commitment to state fully and openly with applicants. In very selective schools, there are often questions surrounding fairness. When you have a large number of qualified students applying to only a few open positions, the issue of fairness will loom large and it is critical that you state your position from an ethical standpoint. Families need to hear that you are committed to a process that will treat all students consistently.

Second, feel free to use EMA’s language and statements to underscore your own school’s position with regard to admission testing. Cite our research if it is helpful to educating your families about the value of a standard scientific measurement inside your process. Explain that an overreliance on subjective measures can lead to inherent bias and inequity in student selection and that your school is working hard to address the matter of bias in selection of students.

Third, explain how your school USES the test scores. If you use them to triangulate against grades to get a better read of student academic ability, say so! Families want to understand how you are making decisions and what data will be used to do so.

How do we ensure fairness?

Fairness inside any admission process should be a noble goal for your team. Yet, we know the very word “fairness” is concerning, especially for selective institutions that have to make hard choices about who to select from a large number of qualified applicants. How can you be fair to all, if there are too many qualified applicants for too few seats? We believe that your promise to fairly review students using the same pieces of data is as important as your commitment to individual, holistic review of each applicant’s file. For more than 63 years, EMA has developed a gold standard in cognitive academic testing upon which selective schools have relied and we remain proud of how the SSAT has been a tool used to open many doors for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Specifically, how can a school or a testing organization adjust for bias in standardized testing?

At EMA, we work hard to ensure the SSAT isn’t a biased tool. That said, how admission offices use the SSAT data can create unintentional bias in their decision process. Overuse of SSAT data or inappropriate use of SSAT scores creates concerns for many families. Please educate families about HOW you use all pieces of the admission file to render a decision for each student. At EMA, we encourage transparency with your families, as well as careful management of their expectations via data-driven information. (i.e. “At our academy, we are committed to a holistic approach in reviewing each student’s application. We typically admit 10% of applicants each year and the median test scores of our enrolled class are XXX and XXX. We are lucky to have too many qualified students seeking admission to our academy, and we work against bias in our selection process by considering all facets of a student’s profile including their academic readiness for our programs, their character and values (please take the Character Skills Snapshot and tell us more about WHO you are), and their personal interests and extracurricular strengths.”

Are schools able to see the test results by race? Wouldn’t that be a way to solve for bias?

Test scores do not contain any information that would indicate a test taker’s race. Schools may develop their own process to examine application material and infer race but test scores themselves will not indicate this. EMA follows best practice from the American Educational Research Association on how we create and release test taker information to schools. AERA does not condone race-based score releases due to worries about bias and unfairness.

How can I ensure fairness in admissions if I have no objective measurement?

At EMA, we believe that the SSAT is an important tool to ensure consistent review of your applicants. If your school plans to go test-optional, we encourage use of our Character Skills Snapshot assessment tool. The Snapshot allows students to self report on seven areas determined important to school success by independent school admission officers. These are: teamwork, intellectual engagement, social awareness, initiative, open-mindedness, resilience, and self control. For schools that have made the decision to go test-optional, we will work with you to develop new approaches, including the use of data science to analyze your past enrollments to project a profile of a successful candidate at your school.

What about parents who have been paying for test prep since younger grades?

It is our view that additional learning never goes to waste. While test prep has received a good deal of negative coverage, we’d like you to think differently about it because students putting in time to better understand and learn skills that will help them flourish in your community should not be damned. The problem surrounding this preparation is one of access and not all children having the same opportunities to experience preparation programs given the high cost associated with them. At EMA, we give all students with a fee waiver free access to our SSAT practice portal so that they may become familiar with the constructs in our test and benefit from advanced knowledge of the SSAT.

My child simply isn’t a good test taker but is very smart and academically accomplished. Isn’t that enough proof that testing does not work?

Our member school admission leaders are committed to a holistic review of their applicants. All EMA admission leaders rely on more than standardized testing as the determinant for admission to their respective schools; test scores are only one source of data on students that helps to triangulate each student’s academic profile. Admission professionals can compare test scores with grades and teacher recommendations to better understand each applicant’s background for a more well-rounded perspective. FUN FACT: EMA’s current executive director did not do well on the SSAT but ultimately she became a strong student at her boarding school; the SSAT accurately predicted her lack of knowledge and skills for the first year, but did not keep her from greater academic achievements for the rest of her time at that school.

You say that testing is a better alternative than more subjective measurements. What do you mean?

There is well documented grade inflation in K-12 schools in the United States. COVID-19 forced many schools to change their grading structures this spring given remote learning challenges, which creates unique challenges for the pool of students applying to independent schools this year. Academic reports will have less reliable, unstandardized information due to the disruptive spring and fall. Additionally, there is ample research which underscores that teachers have not been adequately prepared to remove their own bias from their grading practices. Numerous scholarly articles and research have shown that the students most at risk from teacher bias are black students.