Testing Centers: Solving Common Challenges for Students and the CommunitySteve Saladin | Director of Testing and Assessment, University of Idaho
Generating new sources of revenue, promoting the institutional brand, simplifying the student experience and supporting the regional community: These are all priorities institutional and divisional leaders are grappling with every day at colleges and universities across the United States. Of course, achieving these priorities can be immensely challenging, but not impossible. As licensing and certification exams become more important to the health of the labor market, and as testing environments for other major exams—including the GED, MCAT, TOEFL, CLEP and more—demand greater levels of control and oversight, postsecondary institutions have an opportunity to hit all of the seemingly disparate priorities while making a real difference to their community by launching testing centers. In this interview, Steve Saladin reflects on his experience launching a testing center and outlines some of the benefits and potential pitfalls other leaders should look out for.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you and your colleagues at the University of Idaho decide to set up Testing Center?
Steve Saladin (SS): To answer that I think I need to give you a little bit of history. Many colleges and universities had a department or an individual who coordinated testing for things like the ACT and the SAT that were paper-based, and this dates back to at least the 60s. It didn’t really require a center because we would just reserve a room on a particular Saturday, hire some people to go in and give the test in a large space, but then we didn’t need the space other than on that individual Saturday. In the late 90s the GRE and a number of the programs began going to computer-based testing and that meant that instead of having one large room where we test hundreds of people on one date, we had smaller rooms or a little computer lab where we were testing smaller numbers of people continuously. Now we need the space that was dedicated to testing and so when that began to happen we looked at our demographic and realized that our students who take the GRE and a number of other exams were going to have to travel probably at least 2 hours in order to get to a testing center. So we approached the testing companies to see about setting up a testing center here so our students wouldn’t have to do that.
Evo: What were some of the most significant roadblocks you had to overcome to get the center running?
SS: The biggest roadblock would be the same thing you’ll see on most college campuses. Space is at a premium, as is the money to actually get things off the ground, so that was our biggest obstacle. We were able to find a small classroom that was not being used very much and negotiated essentially a loan from the institution for our individual department to re-model that and set it up, but we had to pay that back. In order to do that we negotiated with the testing companies for fees that they would pay us in order to deliver their exams so we could generate enough income not only to pay back that loan but also to hire testing staff.
Evo: Since launching the testing center, how has it benefitted the university and its students?
SS: The big benefit is exactly what we were hoping for, which is that our students don’t have to travel. The other thing it has also helped with is advertisement and recruitment because students will come here to take an exam and it’ll introduce them to the University of Idaho, so I think that’s been a plus. In terms of the national scene it has allowed us to be involved at the national level and spread the word of the University of Idaho within the testing community.
Evo: Are you seeing any sort of revenue outcomes or benefits or are you revenue neutral?
SS: We’ve always run in the black but we’re totally self-supporting so we have to do that, and so far any money that we have generated has been turned around trying to grow the testing center. Our particular center currently is staffed by a number of part-time people and we’re trying to grow it to the point where we can actually afford to pay full time, benefits, the whole nine yards for the testing staff but we haven’t seen a lot of revenue.
Evo: How has the testing center benefited the surrounding community?
SS: As you may be aware there has been a large growth in the number of certification and licensing-type exams in the last 20 years and a lot of them have gone to computer-based delivery. We’ve provided some of the same benefits to the surrounding community that we provide for our students in terms of them not having to travel in order to take exams. That includes things like employment exams, so individuals who are applying for jobs with the TSA or the post office can take their exams here. We’ve done certification for things like athletic trainers and for plumbers and auto mechanics. We’re able to provide those things locally, and people would have to travel 2 hours or more in order to take those types of exams if it wasn’t for us being here.
Evo: What obstacles have you have to overcome in order to continue the development of the Testing Center?
SS: A lot of it is education of the administration. We continually have to justify our existence because what we’re doing isn’t directly in line with the mission of the institution. We work with students as they’re coming in, we work with students as they’re leaving and then we support the surrounding community, but we don’t really have a whole lot to do with the actual educational process. That’s changing a little bit as more and more courses are going online and sometimes they need a place to be able to take exams in a proctored environment just to ensure that the person taking the exam is the person taking the course, but we’re still a little bit tangential in that regard so I think continually having to explain what we do to others in the institution is an obstacle.
Evo: Would a testing center work at every college or university? What are some key characteristics that would indicate the potential for a successful testing center?
SS: There’s a place for a testing center at every institution, but what that testing looks like may be tremendously different from institution to institution. We happen to have a fairly blended testing center where we do a little bit of everything: the national certification exams, the entrance exams, proctoring, placement exams, GEDs. There are other institutions where they may have a testing center that is only for the institution’s students and they may only do things like classroom exams and placement exams for students. That’s still a testing center but it’s a very different operation than what we’re doing. I’m also aware of centers where the entire center is basically contracted with one testing company and they just provide the test for that one testing company. There are a lot of different ways it could be set up and it all depends on the needs of the institution. What needs to be in place at an institution for testing center? It depends on the type of testing centre, but most importantly there has to be a need for the service. If we were located in Chicago, odds are there would be a number of other sites around us that would be providing this type of service and so we might not need a testing centre like this on our campus. On the flip side, in urban areas there’s going to be a bigger need for testing so maybe we do need another center. Either way you need the support of the administration.
Evo: What advice would you share with other postsecondary leaders who are planning to launch—or to significantly expand—a testing center at their own institution?
SS: Be forward-thinking and negotiate accordingly because a big piece I’ve seen in the almost 20 years that I’ve been running a testing center is that once you contract with a testing company and agree to a particular level of compensation, that compensation doesn’t change. You don’t get a cost-of-living increase every year or anything like that. I’ve got testing contracts that I negotiated almost 20 years ago that still pay the same rate for delivery, and it’s really hard to negotiate an increase in those rates once you’re established. But if you think ahead when you’re first setting up your testing centre there’s a lot more room for negotiations, especially if the testing company has a need for a center to be in your area.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator