Rethinking the Big Test

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A certain Paul Wellstone of Arlington, Va., scored lower than 800, out of a possible 1,600, on his sat test. But the University of North Carolina accepted him anyway, and he went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa. And now he's a fiery U.S. Senator fighting against the high stakes that attach to standardized tests. "Some students," he says, "just think and learn in a different way." Even though a record 1.26 million high school students took the SAT this year, more and more colleges are heeding Wellstone's call. This year Mount Holyoke became the sixth Úlite liberal arts college in the past five years to stop requiring the SAT for admission. The Florida state university system has joined the University of Texas in basing most acceptances on class rank, regardless of SAT scores, as a response to the state-mandated end to affirmative action. A record 280 colleges and universities — many of them smaller schools — will ignore the SAT in admissions this fall for some or all applicants, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. The College Board, which administers the SAT, argues that the test still serves a vital purpose: it helps colleges cut through high school grade inflation. This year 40% of students who took the SAT reported having an A average in high school, up from 28% in 1990. But studies from schools that have dropped the SAT cast doubt on the test's predictive power. Last year more than 80% of freshmen at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College (which went SAT-optional in 1997) had submitted their SATs, with an average score of 1,183. Nonsubmitters (asked to disclose their scores after being admitted) averaged just 964. Yet the submitters' freshman marks were only a third of a letter grade higher than their lower-SAT counterparts. Critics of the SAT are worried that schools relying on the test may discourage applications from minority and other students who are qualified but simply don't test well. The SAT math scores announced last week were the highest in 30 years, but blacks continued to score far below whites on both sections of the test, this year by a total of 198 points. (The College Board says this is because of differences in educational opportunity.) When Muhlenberg College and Maine's Bates College stopped requiring the SAT, minority applications doubled. Says William Hiss, dean of enrollment at Bates: "Schools that use the SAT are throwing away a third of their talent." Three years ago, high school senior Joshua Brookstein of Philadelphia didn't worry much about the SAT. He was too busy serving as president of the city-wide student government. His 950 SAT score would have kept him out of most élite colleges. But he applied to Muhlenberg, didn't submit his score and is set to make the dean's list. Another senator in the making?

—With reporting by Ann Blackman