One Piece of the Puzzle: How Riverdale Country School Uses Standardized Testing

To test or not to test? It's a question school leaders have grappled with throughout the pandemic. And it's top of mind again as schools, students, and families adapt to a post-pandemic environment. While there's no right or wrong decision, it's always valuable to explore the real-life perspectives and decision-making factors of peers who share the same challenges and concerns. EMA recently sat down with Jenna King, Associate Head of School for Admission and Enrollment at Riverdale Country School (NY), and talked about the school's approach to the Secondary Standardized Admission Test (SSAT) before, during, and after the pandemic.

"I've been in admissions at Riverdale for 18 years, and the decision to use standardized testing predates me," King says. "Overall, we always feel like more data on a student is better, and we train our admissions folks to recognize that testing is just one piece of the puzzle. But it's a valuable piece because it provides context that we think is important."

Although the SSAT has been a longstanding piece of Riverdale's admissions puzzle, the pandemic prompted the team to take a fresh look at the role testing plays and if it was doable in a remote environment. Ultimately, the leadership team decided to maintain the testing throughout the pandemic. 

"We felt like having testing was really important for a few reasons," King explains. "First, it gave us more data. During the pandemic, many recommendations were less effective because the teachers didn't know the child, and some kids had a tough time with remote learning. Maintaining the testing and timelines gave us more information and enabled us to make informed decisions."

Consistency was also a factor in deciding to continue testing. With many schools going test-optional or even creating their own tests, the Riverdale team felt like those approaches could add stress for both students and parents. Making the test optional would create another decision for families, and school-specific tests can create situations where kids applying for multiple schools have to test multiple times. 

"Our biggest consideration was whether the process could be accessible to everyone," King says. "But once we learned the testing groups would offer online options, we added an offer to our application to provide a laptop or an opportunity for the student to come to the school so that we could remove any barriers for families."

"We look at testing and the application process for more than an admission decision. It also provides information to the teachers, the learning specialists, and anyone else who is going to be working with the students," King says. "I feel strongly that the admissions process is not just about choosing your kids, but it's also about gathering information about your future students. To me, the testing is another piece that gives us a sense of, 'we know this kid.' With kids coming in with different experiences due to the pandemic, it helps us understand where they are, and, in the end, that serves the child really well."

Going Forward: The Value of Testing

For Riverdale, standardized testing has always served two main purposes, according to King. And those purposes are even more important in today's environment.

"First, standardized testing is part of creating a more streamlined application process," King says.  “We want to make the process as accessible as possible for families. One way to do that is to have things they can do once for multiple schools, like taking the SSAT and providing that writing sample. It's more efficient and allows the kid to spend the application year doing their schoolwork and the other things they're interested in and passionate about, rather than doing application pieces for all of the different schools."

The second purpose is the valuable context testing provides to supplement the other information the admissions team has in a student's file. 

"My philosophy on admissions is, I want to look for reasons to admit a student," King explains. "To me, that means having more data is better, especially in this day and age, where there's so much grade inflation. Ninety percent or more of our applicants are coming in with very high grades, so the grades aren't necessarily a predictor of success. The SSAT helps to give us a fuller understanding of who the applicant is, what they're bringing, and what challenges they have. Often, parents thank us for having the testing because it allows them to know where their kid is academically."

However, King emphasizes that testing is never the deciding factor for an applicant. "We don't want everything to hang on test scores or the interviews," she says. "No single piece of our application – grades, recommendations, interviews, or testing – determines our decision on whether we choose to admit a child. Instead, more information is better and gives us more reasons to admit a student."

Looking ahead, King sees schools continuing to evaluate standardized testing, with some that paused testing during the pandemic returning to it going forward. 

"I think schools will be evaluating how their processes held up this year and what they've gotten in the absence of testing," she explains. "While that will take some time, we're starting to see some schools in New York that made testing optional, bouncing back to including testing because they want more information. I think it's going to be a fascinating few years. Overall, I think we need to do a better job of explaining who a student is and what their strengths and challenges are, so we can better understand the applicant and help them find the right school. Testing is just one piece of how we do that."

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