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Misreporting of SAT Data Adds to Debate Over College Rankings

In the college search, students gravitate towards lists. They love the shorthand comparison of schools provided by rankings such as U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges.

But recent news that Claremont McKenna College submitted inflated SAT scores casts a shadow over the rankings. The vice president and dean of admissions at the 1,200-student school in Claremont, California, admitted misrepresenting data from 2005 to 2011. Although the scores were exaggerated only slightly, small differences can influence the rankings.

Claremont McKenna ranked ninth among national liberal arts colleges in the latest U.S. News list.

The SAT scores have a weight of 7.5 percent in the formula for ranking colleges, according to Bob Morris, of U.S. News. The school also misreported the student-testing scores to the U.S. Department of Education; its regional accrediting body, Western Association of Schools and Colleges; and other publishers. Claremont McKenna has promised "in the near future" it will supply the magazine with the correct average SAT scores so it can determine the impact the misreporting had on the ranking of the school, Morris, who oversees the rankings for U.S. News, wrote on its website.

The episode demonstrates the lengths to which colleges will go to improve their position and adds fuel to the criticism of the validity of the rankings.

Inside Higher Education today ran an opinion piece by the president of Colby College, in Maine, calling the incident a predictable scandal. "We should have seen this coming," writes William Adams. Colleges use a variety of methods to game the system that are on the margins of acceptable practices, he says. The system encourages deceit and has a corrupting influence on higher education, according to Adams.

Adams suggests it's time for colleges to take collective action and not participate in the ranking system, but admits a boycott is unlikely.

The National Association of College Admission Counseling, a nonprofit membership group of admissions counseling professional based in Arlington, Va., has cautioned students about placing too much importance on the U.S. News rankings. In a report last fall, NACAC said the rankings create confusing impressions about college quality.

A committee the group convened to discuss the U.S. News rankings recommended that it remove the "class rank" and "standardized testing" metrics from the rankings formula and instead include factors that measure student satisfaction and engagement. It also suggested that less weight be given to the survey of other administrators about a school's reputation. The group called for more educational information to be given to members about the rankings and that NACAC work with education publishers to encourage development of do-it-yourself lists for consumers so the selection process will be driven by personal fit over generic rankings.


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