Should SATs Matter?

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The campus of the University of California at Berkeley

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But at some point such questions fly too high above the SAT, since almost no one seriously argues any longer that it's an intelligence test. Not even its sponsors. The College Board stopped referring to it as the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1994. For a while, the board redundantly called it an "assessment test." Now it just says the name is SAT and is unwilling to give the test much of an identity beyond that. President Kurt Landgraf of the Educational Testing Service, the company that designs the SAT under contract from the College Board, says it "is a relatively good predictor of how students will do in their first year of college." But he has a profoundly limited view of the nature of the test: "It's a measure of a student's ability to answer questions at a given place and time" — the kind of sentence you might find on an SAT to define the term tautology.

Research from colleges that have dropped the SAT requirement reinforces the notion that the test measures little. Bowdoin College, which started the sat-optional movement in 1969, often studies how well its admissions officers predict college performance without SATs. It has repeatedly found that its rating — a numerical value assigned each applicant on the basis of GPA, essays and other factors — correlates very highly with the student's GPA at Bowdoin. Factoring in SAT scores improves that correlation only slightly. The College Board says that, across many colleges, SAT scores improve the correlation between admissions predictions and GPA realities by 10%.

And 10% means a lot on big campuses that can't afford to spend hours getting to know applicants. Even at Bowdoin, hero of the anti-testing crowd, head of admissions Richard Steele has mixed feelings about other schools' eliminating the SAT requirement. "I'm not one who would recommend this for everyone," he says, noting that Bowdoin is now "highly encouraging" one growing group of hard-to-evaluate applicants, home schoolers, to submit their SATs. "It works for us because we're only dealing with 5,000 applications, vs. 20,000 at the big schools."

Lafayette College, a small liberal-arts and engineering school in Pennsylvania, started a five-year experiment with making SATs optional in 1995. And Lafayette officials found that the test, combined with other measures, correlated better with their students' performance than other measures alone. In addition, admissions officers found themselves lost amid the inflated grades and unranked classes that became common in 1990s secondary education. "We felt the SAT gave us one more consistent, nationally recognized standard," says Barry McCarty, a Lafayette dean. When the college went back to using the test last year, something unexpected happened: its applications surged 14%, and the school enrolled its strongest class in years. Though McCarty credits a flush economy and campus improvements for the increase, he raised another interesting possibility: "I do think students were more interested because of the perception of quality that's attached to (the SAT)."

Surprisingly, just as some U.S. schools are dumping the SAT because they consider it unfair, the British have discovered its potential value in elevating smart kids at poor schools. A study released last week shows that kids in state-run schools who did well on the SAT are falling through the cracks of the current British testing system, which rewards those who have mastered specific subjects rather than general skills. Britain's education czar said he thinks SATs could be compulsory there in a few years.

Admissions officers will always use hard-and-fast numbers to make decisions. But which numbers? U.C.'s Atkinson says California might develop its own test. Until it does, he suggests using scores on the SAT IIs, exams written by the same folks as the original SAT but focusing on specific subject matter. "Once you start testing kids on what they learned in science or social studies, then high schools can start improving how they teach these things," says Michael Kirst, a Stanford education professor.

But SAT IIs (their name too was sanitized of meaning — they used to be Achievement Tests) have also spawned prep courses and racial score gaps. SAT II prep is actually more expensive than SAT I coaching, because most students take three separate SAT II exams, chosen from 22 subject areas. "(The SAT II) doesn't begin to approach a kind of equity solution," says University of Chicago dean Ted O'Neill.

College officials who de-emphasize the SAT usually focus more on evaluating the high schools that students come from. "If we don't have SAT any longer, we'll have to weigh more heavily on what's left — the students' GPA, their curriculum of college-prep courses and other things," says Rae Lee Siporin, admissions director of ucla, which receives more applications each year — about 40,000 — than any other U.S. college. But those measures can amplify the inequalities among high schools even more than the SAT. As Duke University admissions director Christoph Guttentag notes, "The students in school districts with more resources will be more equipped."

Take Advanced Placement classes, the top-level high school courses sponsored by the College Board. APs can help kids earn college credit early, but many high schools can't afford the superqualified teachers and advanced books required for AP classrooms. A California study found that the availability of AP offerings in a school decreases as the percentage of minority and low-income students increases. In 1999, the A.C.L.U. sued the state of California, accusing U.C. schools of favoring applicants who have taken APs. Rasheda Daniel, a plaintiff, says she and her classmates didn't have an equal chance of getting into U.C. "When you look at a lot of high schools, there are gross disparities across class lines," she says. "It's not fair."

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