Standardized Testing for College Admissions

Standardized testing for college admissions is now more than 100 years old. In 1901, the first standardized tests were administered by the College Board for college admissions.

At that time, many universities had their own entrance exams, some requiring prospective students to come to campus for a week or more to take exams.

But different colleges meant different standards. Students needed to know what schools they were going to apply to in order to know what would be required. Some high schools offered separate instruction for students based on which colleges (or type of school) they hoped to attend.

Colleges on the other end might consider in admissions how well previous graduates of a particular high school had done, or might send faculty to visit high schools and rate them.

Most of us today are familiar with the SAT which we took for college admission, but that is 25 years further in the history until we arrive at that test.

From 1885 to 1900, groups including the National Education Association formed committees, discussed and argued and finally formed the College Board (initially as the College Entrance Examination Board) in the hope of standardizing curricula at high schools with a goal of making a college education accessible to a wider pool of applicants.

This may sound somewhat familiar to more modern efforts at standards, such as the current Common Core State Standards, including the standardized testing. Those first standardized college entrance exams (given to less than 1000 students) tested English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

They were essay tests, not multiple choice. They were read and scored by a team of experts in each subject. That first year, the readers sat at tables in the library of Columbia University. the grades were: Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. They were used for several decades but did not have wide acceptance.

We would classify those tests as achievement tests because they tested for students' proficiency in a subject. The College Board would next move to using aptitude tests meant to measure intelligence, though achievement test in specific subjects were still to be used for admissions testing.

I was surprised to read that the motivation to change was twofold. Since some high schools didn't teach some subjects (like ancient Greek) or prepare students specifically for college, an aptitude test should make the test more accessible for those students. But a much more surprising and less well known part of the history of the S.A.T. is that some proponents of aptitude/intelligence testing were college officials who were concerned about the rapid influx of immigrants being added to their student body.

A Columbia University dean worried that the high numbers of recent immigrants and their children would make the school "socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement," and its president described the 1917 freshman class as "depressing in the extreme," lamenting the absence of "boys of old American stock." These college officials believed that immigrants had less innate intelligence than old-blooded Americans, and hoped that they would score lower on aptitude tests, which would give the schools an excuse to admit fewer of them.

It was a small group of men who drove the use of standardized testing in America. In 1925, the College Board began to use a new, multiple-choice test. It was designed by a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham. He modeled it on his work with Army intelligence tests.

This new test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or simply the SAT and it was first offered in 1926. Currently, more than 1.6 million students take the SAT each year.

Students started taking a new SAT in March 2016. Most students in the class of 2017 and beyond will take the new SAT in the spring of 11th grade and again in the fall of 12th grade.

As I wrote earlier, students are already prepping for the new test, including prep online offered free by Khan Academy.


Is Your Professor Using An Open Textbook This Semester? (Probably Not)

free the book

I am a user and advocate of free and openly licensed educational resources (OER), and open textbooks seems to me to be one of the lowest-hanging fruits on that OER tree.

I believe the use of OER materials in general has increased slightly the past few years, but the use of open textbooks has not increased. In fact, according to a large-scale survey recently released, only 6.6 percent of faculty members are "very aware" of them. That is not a good thing.

Back in 2010, I worked with the community college and the broader 

and gave many presentations on using open textbooks. 

There are some colleges that have made a campus effort to encourage open textbook use, but they are in the minority.  

Can you still require a textbook of your students. Yes. Maybe.

A recent survey report, "Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16," shows a mixed picture for OER and some "serious disconnects."

One of those was that 87% of professors who had recently chosen books or other materials for a coursone said the cost to the students had been important or very important to them, but only 5% percent of those had assigned a free or openly licensed textbook. 

So why didn't they opt for open textbooks? Their perceived barriers include that there were not enough resources for their subject and that it was "too hard to find what I need" (no comprehensive catalog of resources).

I heard those when I did presentations. But there are plenty of sites that catalog books. 

Looking at the textbook listings at, I did a search for and found two very common gen ed course textbooks for statistics and economics

algebra coverI was working at a community college when I first started working with open textbooks. Those schools are a great place for low-cost texts, especially because students are often taking courses below college level and need basic texts. Of course, students often enter 4-year colleges and also need to work on more basic math skills in order to do college-level math. Math is possibly the best subject for open textbooks because those books have a longer shelf life. Calculus does not change dramatically year to year. 

Let's take a look at a great example of an open textbook on Intermediate Algebra. Now in its third edition, it is one of four open textbooks that are core teaching resources at Scottsdale Community College. Along with Basic Arithmetic, Introductory Algebra and College Algebra, it has been used by thousands of students, saving their students upwards of $150,000 per semester.

This could be used in an algebra course or as a remedial reference for students in higher level courses. Of course, this is not only something that college professors should be examining. Teachers in high schools can also make good use of many of these textbooks with their students.

This particular group of books are the result of the SCC Math faculty making a collective decision to adopt OER and the books were developed and are maintained at virtually no cost by those faculty members. They have been enhanced by a suite of ancillary materials that include online help sessions, quizzes, and instructor's guides. 

Intermediate Algebra consists of 12 lessons with a MiniLesson (topic coverage via video examples and You Try problems for students), Practice Problems, and an end-of-lesson Assessment.

Want to check it out or use it?  You can view/download the textbook as a PDF and access all four books at

Basic Arithmetic (MAT082) – Workbook Edition 2

Introductory Algebra (MAT090, 091, 092) – Workbook Edition 4

Intermediate Algebra (MAT120, 121, 122) – Workbook Edition 4

College Algebra (MAT150, MAT151) – Workbook Edition 1

Feedback on Student Writing and Using Mimesis to Teach Plagiarism

thumbs upInstructors, especially those who do not teach writing as a subject, often struggle when it comes to making suggestions to students about what they need to do to improve their writing. I saw a survey done by of 2400 students in bachelor or graduate programs that asked what types of feedback they felt were most effective and what types of feedback they received most regularly.

The results can either be seen as encouraging or inconclusive. All types of feedback were seen by over half of the students as being either very or extremely effective. Even the lowest response, for general praise or encouragement, got a 56% positive response. 

The responses to the types of feedback were more interesting. 68% said that they received general comments regularly while only 36% said they received examples regularly. Suggestions for improvement, the type of feedback rated most effective by students, was only seen regularly by 58% of students.

It is also interesting that across every category students rated feedback as being more effective than educators rated it. That lack of belief in feedback is certainly connected to the students in the majority saying that they didn’t regularly receive any feedback at all.

So the concern here for teachers is not as much what type of feedback they give, but whether they are giving enough feedback.

During the years that I directed a writing program, it was made clear to me that, just like teachers in all the lower grades, professors dreaded having to decide and deal with writing that you believe it is plagiarized. Of course, that is why has become a successful company.They suggested in a blog post a very unusual approach to teaching about plagiarism. Have students copy. Intentionally. 

copying the masters

Mimesis refers to the ability to copy. Mimicry is the practice of imitating. We often encourage students to mimic as a way of learning. We discourage students from copying. We should make the distinction clear to students.

I spent a few years on an academic integrity committee at a university. One of the most sensitive issues that came up in those meetings was about the perceived cultural differences when it came to imitating or copying by students. 

The university has large numbers of international students, most in STEM fields, and many of them have their greatest academic difficulties with academic writing. The post says that "To many educators, there’s a belief that students in eastern countries learn through rote memorization and copying while those in western countries focus more or original work and creative thought. Though the stereotype is obviously not the complete truth, there are cultural differences between educational approaches in countries with an eastern cultural background and those with a western approach."

They point to research by Anita Lundberg who teaches for Australia's James Cook University at a satellite school in Singapore. Lundberg, a cultural anthropologist studying ethnography, the study of customs and cultures, says that the biggest lesson learned is that copying and imitation is a key part of the learning experience in all cultures and in nearly all areas. Mimesis can be found in all fields including writing and art, where great masters often start mimicking the works of those who came before.

With writing, it is a good idea to give students model papers for the students to work from and even mimic. Separate mimesis from plagiarism. Teach referencing and citation skills.

American MOOC

mooc logoA member of my Academia and the MOOC group on LinkedIn contacted me last month by email to further the discussion of MOOCs and "reforming higher education." He has been reading my posts for a few years and generally agrees with my thoughts, but he's coming from a very different background, which is what I found most interesting.

Muvaffak Gozaydin wrote that he is Turkish, but lived for a time in the U.S. While here, he did research at Caltech in the early 1960s and received an MSME in 1964 from Stanford, an MSIE in 1965 from Stanford and a MSEE in 1968 from Stanford. He did the latter while working for HP in Palo Alto, CA. That education got him a good life as a manager and CEO in Turkey.

He feels indebted to the U.S. and follows higher education here and abroad. What he observes is not any good will from the providers of online education to the larger educational world.

He was excited back in 2011 when Stanford made an online course into a MOOC and 160.000 signed up. 12.000 or so finished, which some see as disappointing, but I see as amazing. Has your school offered an online course and had 12,000 learners finish it?

His concern now is providing courses and degrees that fit the needs of 18 -22 years olds. He said that "The problem is there. Quality is low, price is high in the USA for Higher Ed."

Georgia Tech offered a $7000 masters degree. MIT offered a supply chain management  masters degree that was 50 % online with a 50 % reduction in tuition. But it has been 4 years since MOOCs peaked in media attention and further development has been very slow.

I had posted several articles on LinkedIn about corporate and MOOC use outside use the United States, including an effort by the French government. But how, he asks, can we convince America's top 200 schools to provide online degrees at lower cost?

Here is one idea he suggests. Students take as many courses as they want online and each online course causes a reduction in tuition of about 10 %. If they take 5 courses, online cost would be reduced 50 %.

That is quite a new idea, and not one most schools would easily sign on to try.

I have long believed with MOOCs it is more of evolution rather than revolution.

As I replied to Muvaffak, while universities here in the U.S. are non-profit, they are very concerned with money/profit. The MOOC was seen early on as a threat to the tuition and degree model that provides a good percentage of operating costs. 

People thought Stanford, MIT, Harvard et al were first involved in MOOC experiments because they more innovative or more open. The top universities were quicker to jump into MOOCs because they have large endowment monies and tuition is less of a factor.? 

It's encouraging that some schools like Georgia Tech are offering a few degrees fully online at lower cost. The rise of the mini-masters may help with this too.  

It is ironic that many schools - including my own NJIT - were once charging more for online courses at one time (tech fees, development costs). That has largely ended, but schools don't see that the numbers (massive or less) in a MOOC (or MOC) offer the opportunity to maintain "profits" even with much lower costs.

Many educators think the MOOC revolution failed and they no longer have to worry about it.

Still, I try to promote and educate others about the MOOC approach - though at this point, I wish we had another name for them. Too much baggage.