The Case to Eliminate the SATs

On September 20, 2007, The Globe featured an article about professors at MIT who exposed the College Board’s inability to assess with any accuracy the writing section of the SAT I. The article does more than describe the test’s weaknesses; it makes yet another case for abandoning the SAT as a tool for evaluating students for college admission.

As FairTest and others have demonstrated, the SAT is not an appropriate instrument for predicting success for students in college: the SAT can predict how well students do in the first semester, and perhaps the first year of college, but nothing more. There is, however, a direct correlation between SAT scores and family income. Beyond that, the test reveals little about applicants. In addition, biases continue to exist within the SAT. Females of all races and students of color continue to score at a lower level than white males, and some might also suggest that the SAT favors students who are most comfortable in the world of right and wrong answers – hardly the kind of student who will succeed in an environment that calls on qualities such as flexibility, innovation and resourcefulness. With the writing section the College Board’s response to the test’s weaknesses has been to make it longer by adding a section they are unable to grade.

Colleges and universities use a range of factors in making admission decisions, and for many colleges their actions demonstrate that they really do not need the SAT. Schools such as Bowdoin, Holy Cross, Mount Holyoke, Hamilton, Middlebury and The University of Texas at Austin have made the SAT optional. They encourage students with high SATs to submit their scores and urge others not to. This raises the average SAT scores for the incoming freshman class – and thus the schools’ US News and World Report rankings – and it also allows them to select a large portion of the class based on factors other than the SATs. They are, in fact, admitting that true predictors of success in college are high school grades, a challenging high school course of study, extracurricular interests and talents, and class rank. Their actions say the SAT is not an important tool in determining whom to admit. One could argue that even Harvard does not use SATs. The mid-fiftieth percentile of Harvard applicants score between 700 and 790 on both the math and verbal section of the SAT. Harvard accepts just 9% of applicants, which means they are denying admission to thousands of students who score within the mid-fiftieth percentile and beyond. Clearly Harvard is using much more sophisticated criteria in deciding which students fall into that 9%.

There is more. In the August 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review, sociologists Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University and Marta Tienda of Princeton University contend that eliminating the SAT would put to rest arguments around affirmative action in the college admission process. The current Administration has skillfully and cynically linked affirmative action with quotas. Affirmative action is not about quotas; affirmative action exists to level the playing field for all applicants. In current practice college admission offices may decide that if applicants from certain racial, ethnic or socio-economic groups do not score as well on the SATs, they should deemphasize the test in the admission process – a good decision executed with little science. If the test is eliminated, admission offices will no longer be forced to make that sort of decision and will be free to admit an academically qualified and diverse class based on criteria that more accurately predict success in college.

Even in the face of common sense there are obstacles. Academia is a highly risk averse world and change comes very, very slowly. The SAT is big business. The College Board earns a reliable and renewable revenue stream from the SAT, and the College Board is a major client for ETS, the company that writes the test. There is also a thriving test preparation industry with companies like The Princeton Review that rely heavily on SAT prep for their business. Over the years a cottage industry of high-priced independent tutors has also emerged, bolstering the scores of students from more affluent families.

High school students across America are expending precious time and emotional energy on the SAT as part of the college application process. Why? It is time for our universities to do the right thing. Students waste too much time preparing for and stressing about a test that measures virtually nothing. Universities should have the courage to do the right thing for the people they are there to serve – students – and eliminate the SAT.

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