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Talking testing with UPenn Dean of Admission on SiriusXM show “The Process”

By November 13, 2018July 10th, 2024Compass News, Featured

One of the benefits of having relocated to New York City to support our office here is being more readily available and able to say yes when media opportunities arise. A few weeks ago I was invited to join UPenn’s Dean of Admission, Eric Furda and Dwight-Englewood School’s Director of College Counseling, Eileen Cunningham Feikens on their call-in radio show “The Process.” The shows airs monthly on SiriusXM and covers all things college admissions. I arrived at the bustling studio in Rockefeller Center for my half-hour slot, was whisked into the soundbooth, threw on a set of headphones, and off we went on a wide-ranging conversation that was peppered with questions from callers all over the country.

I was impressed with Dean Furda’s openness and candor throughout our conversation. Please feel free to give it a listen on their Soundcast channel. I come on at 30 minutes in and finish out the hour. Or if you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, below are some portions of the transcript that may be of interest.

The Process (10-26-18)

Eileen Cunningham Feikens:  Hey, welcome back to The Process on SiriusXM Stars. This is Eileen Cunningham Feikens. I’m the director of college counseling at the Dwight-Englewood School. I’m joined by my partner on The Process, Eric J. Furda, Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania.

We have some callers on the line. I want to remind everyone that we have a great guest here on our second half of the show, Adam Ingersoll, founder and principal of Compass Education Group, which provides the highest quality one-on-one test prep and academic tutoring.

Before we go to Adam, I want to go to the calls. We have Meghan in Chicago.

Eric J. Furda:  Welcome to The Process, Meghan.

Meghan:  Hi. Thank you for taking my call. One of the reasons I decided to call today was my son went Early Decision. He’s a senior in high school. He applied Early Decision at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eric:  Here we go. What am I doing up in New York? I should be down reading your son’s application right now.

Eileen:  You’re in the hot seat right now, Furda. Meghan, what’s your question?

Meghan:  This summer we went to another topnotch institution and heard their admission chair speak. He flat-out said that if something is listed as optional, it simply isn’t. That it’s that competitive, that even though it says it’s optional, you should do it. Regarding University of Pennsylvania, when it came to the SAT subject tests, we did call the office and ask, “Is this truly optional?” Yes, your admissions department said it is truly optional.

Eric:  They better have. Otherwise I’d have to go to the phone room and figure out what’s going on.

Eileen:  Heads would be rolling.

Eric:  Meghan, it’s a great question. We know how families read into this. Adam, as you see this testing landscape, what do you think?

Adam Ingersoll:  A classic example of “recommended” being coded language for “expected” would be Georgetown and their position on Subject Tests. They are – very reluctantly I might add – only “strongly recommending” subject tests. They would prefer to flat-out require them, but no one in their peer group does so it’s politically and competitively untenable for them to do so.

Eric:  That’s interesting.

Adam:  On this question of formal policy versus unofficial expectations, University of Chicago’s new test-optional policy is maybe the real 800 pound gorilla to talk about. On the one hand it’s a sincere position on their part, they want to lower barriers for underrepresented kids. On the other hand, the language in their press release said explicitly that they still expect to see – and like to see – scores from the vast majority of their applicants.

Eric:  How do you think that will play out this year as you’re working with families and just the behavior? What behaviors are in play…?

Adam:  The assumption, correct or incorrect, by families, especially affluent families who are approaching this process knowing they need to get in based on grades and scores relative to their peers in the pool of overrepresented kids, they would look at Chicago’s position and say, “That’s probably not as much for me. If I do apply to Chicago without scores, they’ll make the logical assumption that my scores would not have been competitive.” It better be something else that makes a student in that part of the pool a compelling candidate.

Eileen:  Got it. What I’m hearing between the lines is if you’re a strong tester you’re going to send those scores. It’s really affecting those students who don’t feel that they can present their strength through the tests. There lies the rub.

Adam:  I love the test-optional movement for the students that it is most primarily designed to serve, students who are underrepresented, who don’t have access to the kind of things (sophisticated intensive test prep) that Compass provides. It’s wonderful.

For students who do have access to those advantages, but aren’t able to show strong scores, everyone knows what’s going on. It’s great that they have the option to withhold scores too, but then they need to be especially competitive on every other front.

Adam:  Meghan, great question. Obviously, there’s a lot of different pieces to consider here. For the University of Pennsylvania, the Subject Tests are optional. You don’t have to take them. It’s up to you. [Note that UPenn continues to require either the SAT or ACT of all applicants.]

Eileen:  [laughs] Eric has a really big smile on his face right now when he’s like, “Whew.”

Eric:  We really thought about this policy. Meghan, thanks for the call. Adam, while we have you here and before we go back to the calls, my fifth-grade son — and I know you have some children around the same age — what about some of their testing? Because with your work, you also look at some of these independent school exams as well, the ERB’s required for independent school admission in lower grades.

Adam:  Three months ago, I moved my family from Iowa City, Iowa to the upper-west side of Manhattan. So what used to always be theoretical or something I experienced vicariously via our clients suddenly became very personal. All four of my kids went through the independent school admission process, including the tests. It was very surreal for me to experience this with my own kids after helping other families through it for two decades.

It was interesting that my youngest child, now a fourth grader at Horace Mann, had to take what was was the most intense of any standardized test that I’ve ever seen a kid have to take. It was extremely expensive, and it actually had a live one-on-one evaluative component with a teacher. And that evaluation was specifically trying to suss out whether the kid had been formally prepped!

Eric:  Interesting.

Adam:  The testing actually gets a little less crazy as you get older. At least in places like Manhattan.

Eileen:  Hopefully, some of our students and families out there will take comfort in the fact that they don’t have to go through that and that hurdle is behind them. Speaking about some other test questions here, how do you think that students should face — and this is going back to maybe sophomores, juniors — deciding which test to take, either the SAT or the ACT.

I’m sure you get this question a lot. How do you handle it?

Adam:  It’s in the top two questions that we get. It’s critical not to rely on generalizations. You may have heard classic ones such as that a student who’s a certain type of learner will be better at one test or the other. That kind of stuff holds no water, useless myths. You need to take practice tests as baselines and compare them very carefully.

For many students, the SAT baseline is a PSAT they take at school. Many of them need to then find an opportunity to take a practice ACT. You look at what you have, and usually, those scores are enough to make a decision. It’s critical to do that in advance and choose to specialize in one test, not both, rather than diving into dealing with both tests.

Eileen:  When do you think is the best time for a student, perhaps freshman, sophomore, junior, to take advantage of any test prep options that might be available to them?

Adam:  The trend that I see in the mostly affluent populations that we work with are to start too soon, prep over too long a period of time and ultimately, do too much.

Eric:  Interesting.

Adam:  Of course, there are many test prep companies that push that kind of behavior. The thing is, the data show that most students don’t peak on these tests until late in 11th grade or early fall of 12th grade. So if you are trying to do this efficiently and have your test prep really be leveraged against when you’re most developmentally-ready to take the test, then you would defer test prep until into 11th grade. And yet, the trend in my practice is families are calling us in 9th and 10th grade begging to get started.

Eric:  They want to get started.

Adam:  I feel test prep in 10th grade is really too early for most kids. The summer before 11th is typically the earliest you want to dive into it.

Eileen:  The earliest. Great information.

Eileen:  Ok, we have Gia in Los Angeles.

Gia:  Yes, I have a senior who just took his third and final SAT. He needed, like, 50 more points in math to get his superscore where he wanted for his number one school. He just got his scores on Monday, the 19th, I believe it was. He is telling me, and this is what I’m hearing from his friends, they got more questions right on this test in both subjects, and yet, his score went down.

Eileen:  Crazy.

Gia:  He’s telling me there is a down curve because, rumor has it, it was an easier test, and therefore, people were scoring higher, so they curved down.


Eileen:  I’m so glad you called in. Adam, what’s your take on this?

Adam:  Your son’s absolutely right. There’s some nuance here that we can’t cover in detail (see Compass blog article for a complete explanation) but, yes, he’s onto something.. Every SAT has differing levels of raw difficulty. It’s impossible to assemble a test that has exactly the same statistical difficulty across all the items. So, each test has a conversion of a raw score to a scaled score. The easier the raw level of difficulty of the test, the harsher the conversion is, so to speak. This goes to what happened with the June test. The June test was a debacle.

Eileen:  There was a lot of press about that.

Adam:  The June SAT was basically easier than a PSAT. It was completely without historical precedent.

Eileen:  Really?

Adam:  The way to think about it is on the June test, and slightly less so on the October test, there were not nearly enough hard questions to differentiate between students at the top. What you have are students who, as they miss one problem, two problems, they see much steeper drops from 800 than they are used to seeing on practice tests or other tests historically.

Frankly, it’s unfair. I think it reflects some real weaknesses right now within College Board’s test development processes. The SAT is supposed to be extremely transparent; that was one of the key promises when the test was drastically overhauled a few years ago. Unfortunately, what we saw on the June test does not reflect transparency.

Eileen:  It’s also a reminder that it’s one data point. It’s one data point in the admissions process.

Eric:  You’re working with students on a day-in and day-out basis, Adam. You’re working with students and families, Eileen. Gia, great question. I’m glad that you brought it up. It was something that we were chatting about prior to the show.

The college admission officers have to keep this in their view and understand that there are some differences with the test, which many on our staff know, while also understanding from June until now, just really the experience students are having and how families are feeling.

Adam:  Eric, here’s the challenge. It really goes to the heart of something very interesting right now in the college admissions world. I have tried for years to assure families that colleges use scores responsibly and one of the responsible things you must do is not split hairs finely.

Eric:  [crosstalk]…like within a 40-point range?

Adam:  It’s 40 points each side of the test on the SAT and it’s one to two points on the ACT. If you see a college that seems to be splitting hairs between a student who’s a 33 or a 34, even a 33 and a 35, there’s no statistical justification for that.

We had Dean Fitzsimmons – who I respect tremendously – in a courtroom in Boston last week, defending Harvard’s practice. For the most part, I agree with his defense but, they revealed that they split hairs finely. Internally they have these groupings of applicants, and 36 is considered part of the “Magna cum laude” group, and 34 and 35 is “summa”, and 33 and 32 is “cum laude” etc. That’s absurd.

Eric:  From a testing standpoint, that is.

Adam: The SAT is not that precise a test at its best. And when the SAT is having a hard time being consistent from test date to test date, it’s really not that precise.

Eileen:  That just muddies the water further.

Eric:  It really exacerbates it.

Adam:  I did not give Gia a reassuring response other than to say, I hope folks in Eric’s shoes are aware of this and thinking of test scores as in a band or a range, even more than they historically have, rather than as precise.

Eileen:  I agree. Thank you.

Eric:  I think that’s exactly it on all sides of the desk, really putting this in the proper context and using these tests responsibly, as with everything.

Eric:  Congratulations, too. Let’s go back to the lines. Susan, in DC, you have a question for The Process.

Susan:  I do, hello. My children go to a private school in Washington DC and a lot of the top-tier private schools are pulling away from offering AP courses. My worry is that my children may be at a disadvantage when they’re applying to colleges, not having taken those classes.

Eileen:  Are you talking about a disadvantage in terms of their previous education and preparation for college or are you talking about for admission?


Susan:  If colleges are looking at two students with all things equal, my child doesn’t show…


Eileen:  I’m going to stop you right there. This is such a great question. I’m so glad you called in. Colleges are going to look at a student and review that student in the context of what is available at his or her or their school.

Eric:  These are all rigorous schools, by the way, that are doing this.

Eileen:  Very rigorous. They’re not going to count it against a student that they don’t have APs if APs are not offered at the school. They can’t do that. There are no two students, even within the same school, that are going to be identical. Susan, thank you so much for the question. It’s something that I think a lot of parents are concerned about, but I don’t think you have to worry about it.

Eric:  Thank you, Susan. Adam, let me ask you this question. I think with so many of the questions that we’ve received today across The Process is the connection between high school curriculum, learning and testing because I think that gets at part of Susan’s question, too.

What are you seeing in terms of what students are exposed to in their high school and then, when they come to you in 10th or 11th grade, what their testing preparation is like?

Adam:  Let me parse that a bit. Our clients are mostly affluent families with kids who attend very competitive public high schools or to rather elite private schools. The basic curricular experience, the core academic development that they need to be ready to prepare for these tests, that’s almost always there. Not an issue with our typical client.

However, broadly, what the test is supposed to do is, first and foremost, reveal which students are “college ready.” In the big picture, this is what the tests are trying to do. This is the SAT’s growth in the last five years, selling the test as a product to entire states or large public school districts as an assessment that reflects basic college readiness, literally, based on x score, this student has a y chance of getting at least C’s in introductory first year college coursework.

At the high end of colleges, to be quite frank, Eric, at your school, minimal college readiness is not what your folks are screening for. That’s a given.

Eric:  Certainly. Do you see, Adam, having these state-wide tests, starting in the eighth grade, I believe, maybe seventh, eighth, and then, the PSAT? Is this driving good learning behavior? What do you see?

Adam:  It does drive up test scores. To the extent the scores still are hard currency in the college admission process, you are helping those kids in that way. You’re getting them to be even just more aware of the college process because they’ve taken a test.

Eileen:  And, acclimated to taking standardized tests in a way, as well, correct?

Adam:  But are you teaching them what they really should learn? In the big picture, what’s the most valuable use of their time at school? Training for standardized tests?

Eric:  Let’s go back to the lines. Katie, in LA. You have a question for The Process.

Katie:  Hi, kind of along the same lines, my question. I have a mediocre student. She’s a freshman in high school. Is it better to send her to a smaller, private high school where we’re paying a lot of money on Cs and Bs or a larger, public high school where we’re not wasting our money? How does a college look at that, the size of the school and their grades?

Eric:  Absolutely, and it’s a great question. There is an investment in not only the curriculum but, then also, the type of learning that your child’s having. Adam, given that we’re wrapping up the show, a thought on this?

Adam:  It’s funny. This question gets to the heart of why test scores exist. The test scores will simply give colleges some additional context relative to her transcript. I think, honestly, with this question, you’re maybe trying too hard to reverse engineer things. I would try hard to figure out right now, in which environment will she be more comfortable and successful?

That will tee her up for success in the college process three or four years from now. Trying to figure out whether it is better to be a slightly bigger fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Wildly speculative as far as how that’s going to play out for her in college admissions in three to four years.

Eric:  Katie, thanks for the call. Eileen, any final second thoughts?

Eileen:  My gosh, it’s October 26th.

Eric:  It’s the end of October, you have a deadline. Did you write all your letters? All the letters are written?

Eileen:  My letters have been written. My letters are totally all done. I just want to say for every student out there who might be applying to a college under an early deadline, please don’t wait until 11:30 the night before it’s due. Please, promise me.

Eric:  11:30? 11:59 we’re seeing.

Eileen:  No, no, no. I want at least the day before. At least a day before. You don’t know what the traffic is going to be like on those websites. Good luck, everyone.

Eric:  Thank you so much for tuning into The Process. Adam, great to have you.


Adam Ingersoll

Adam began his career in test prep in 1993 while at the University of Southern California, where he was a student-athlete on the basketball team, worked in the admission office, and graduated magna cum laude. Over the last three decades he has guided thousands of families to successful experiences with standardized tests and has mentored hundreds of the industry's most sought-after tutors. Adam is known nationally as a leading expert on college admission testing and is a frequent presenter at higher ed conferences, faculty development workshops, and school seminars.

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