University Bribes Students to Retake SAT

Competition between colleges for students is as tough as it ever was and with the economic downturn, it will definitely get tougher. But this seems ridiculous.

My friends at Ethics Newsline brought a story to my attention that is almost unbelievable. It turns out that Baylor University has been paying students who are already admitted and attending the school to retake the SAT. Just sitting in the room for the exam can win you a $300 textbook credit and raising your score by 50 points wins you $1,000 in scholarship money. Considering that SAT scores can easily vary by 50 points from sitting to sitting, this is a good bet for any incoming student.

Why would Baylor want its already-admitted kids to retake the SAT? The SAT is a major part of the US News & World Reports college ranking system. Baylor's got a strategic plan called "Baylor 2012" that evidently includes a cornerstone goal that it will do better on the US News rankings. They're on their way, according to The Lariat, the student newspaper. Baylor's average score SAT went from 1,200 to 1,210.

Baylor's vice president for marketing, John Barry, first told the New York Times that there's no problem because any other college could have done it too: "Every university wants to have great SAT scores. Every university wants to be perceived as having a high-quality class. We all wanted that. Were we happy our SAT scores went up? Yes. Did our students earn their scores? Yes they did."

Some critics of standardized testing in general are pouncing on this because they say it reveals how evil they are. I don't see it that way. The SAT is just a tool. So are the US News rankings. Baylor was misusing one tool to game the other -- that doesn't make the tools wrong, it makes Baylor wrong. Indeed, according to the influential Inside Higher Ed, Robert Morse (the U.S. News "ranking czar") made clear that the magazine "disapproves of any educational policy designed solely to manipulate the ranking."

This episode shows how careful leaders have to be when they set goals because staff throughout the organization might think that reaching the goal is the most important thing, not how you get there. In some areas, that can work. Schools? Not so much.