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September 12, 2002

Coverage of how Pitt reports SAT averages labeled unfair

Unfair was how Chancellor Mark Nordenberg described recent news coverage that Pitt has misrepresented student test scores.

Nordenberg told Senate Council yesterday that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was "unfair to a number of people who do their work effectively and ethically and do it honestly."

In a Sept. 8 front page story and a follow-up editorial Sept. 11, the Post-Gazette implied that Pitt was mis-reporting average SAT scores of its entering freshmen to put itself in a favorable light.

The Post-Gazette reported that some schools, including Pitt, exclude scores from certain lower-performing groups such as athletes, before calculating their SAT average.

"This year, the practice meant that Pitt excluded roughly one in 10 freshmen, or 305 students, and in years past it has meant as many as 448 students were excluded. By dropping them from the tally, Pitt in effect inflates its SAT average."

The editorial charged that Pitt was releasing "apples [that] can't be compared to other schools' oranges."

Nordenberg responded that Pitt has used the same SAT reporting system for more than 30 years, dating back to the origins of programs that allow certain athletes and special category students to be admitted using different admissions criteria.

"The basis for that much earlier decision and for our continuing use of that convention is straightforward," Nordenberg said. "Our admissions professionals believe that the great bulk of our prospective students are those who are not heavily recruited athletes or do not fit into any special access categories, and who are most interested in the standards they will need to meet if they wish to be admitted to the University of Pittsburgh."

The chancellor added that Pitt does not compare its SAT scores with those of other institutions. "Instead, the focus [of scores] is on our University and their message is intended to be a useful one [to prospective students]: Given the profile of our most recent class, if you want to be admitted to the University of Pittsburgh, here are the credentials that you will likely need to present."

Further, the chancellor pointed out, when the University provides SAT data to publications that evaluate higher education institutions, it always follows the particular instructions of those publications, which vary.

He cited the Princeton Review, which requests data on the entire freshman class and then publishes the average SAT score; U.S. News & World Report, which takes submitted SAT data on the entire entering class but then reports the 25th percentile score and the 75th percentile score; and Baron's Profiles of American Colleges, which directs schools specifically not to include scores for international students or for enrollees in special preference programs.

Nordenberg said, "The clear theme of the Post-Gazette [Sept. 8] article is that there is only one acceptable approach to such reporting. What is especially interesting, then, is that there is no standard convention for reporting SAT scores even among these publications."

Nordenberg further noted that the University's general reports of institutional progress compare the rate of increase of Pitt's SAT scores from year to year as opposed to either absolute numbers or comparisons with other schools' scores.

The chancellor maintained that if Pitt had changed its reporting process and based progress on the scores of all freshmen, "Our rate of progress over the last several years would have been even more dramatic, because the SAT scores earned by our students in our special admission programs have been rising even more quickly than the general increase in the student body, as dramatic as that has been." He did not provide specifics.

"Ironically, because of the national debate over the validity of the SAT scores and more personal reservations that I hold … I have moved away in my own reporting from using SAT scores at all," Nordenberg said, including in his 2001 and 2002 annual reports to the Board of Trustees. "Over the last two years, my reports made no mention of SAT scores but have focused on other measures such as class rank of admitted students."

q In other Senate Council developments:

* Provost James Maher said that the system to evaluate department chairs and deans, developed by an ad hoc Senate committee and the Provost's office, is ready to be implemented. He said that all chairs and two volunteer "test" deans, Carolyn Ban of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and Gerald Holder of the School of Engineering, will be evaluated by the end of the academic year.

* Maher said a revised Faculty Handbook is ready to be put on the web. The on-line handbook will be easily updated and will include dates reflecting when any language is changed, he said.

* The council passed a resolution by voice vote, approved by Faculty Assembly Sept. 5, that the University "formally explore an employee assisted housing program."

* A second Faculty Assembly-approved resolution was withdrawn at the request of Tracy Soska, chair of the Senate's community relations committee. The resolution called for Pitt to name a committee to make recommendations about plans for developing Schenley Plaza. Soska said that Pitt was already looking into the matter as a representative on the Oakland Task Force and other community groups and that he believed a separate committee was not needed at this time.

Faculty Assembly Sept. 3 approved a resolution calling on Nordenberg to "take steps to implement the recommendation" of the Special Committee on Domestic Partner Health Insurance Benefits by the Nov. 26 meeting of Faculty Assembly.

Nordenberg told the University Times following the Senate Council meeting, "Let me say first, I have not received a resolution. But I did initiate conversations with the presidents of the other two major state-related universities (Penn State and Temple) well over a year ago. Those conversations are ongoing and productive."

Nordenberg declined to elaborate.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 2

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