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June 3, 2008

Abandoning The SAT - Fraud or Folly?

By Peter D. Salins

What are we to make of the decision by a growing number of "highly selective" colleges to scrap the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a criterion for college admission, something brought to our attention recently when another pair of semi-elite schools (Smith and Wake Forest) joined these ranks? The New York Times story of May 27 reporting on the Smith/Wake Forest developments explains the matter thus: "The number of colleges and universities where such tests are now optional... ...has been growing steadily as more institutions have become concerned about the validity of standardized tests in predicting academic success, and the degree to which test performance correlates with household income, parental education and race." If this is really what is driving the SAT defectors, they are deceiving themselves and misleading the public.

Let's begin with predictive validity. Among the countless studies done on this subject over the years, not a single one has failed to find a high correlation between SAT scores and academic performance in college, as measured by grades or persistence. On a personal note, during my ten years as Provost of SUNY, I had my institutional research staff repeatedly review the relationship between SAT scores and academic success among our 33 baccalaureate campuses and their 200,000 + students, and found - as all the national research has confirmed - a near perfect correlation. SUNY schools and students with higher SAT profiles had higher grade point averages and markedly higher graduation rates.

The other claim of test critics is that high school grade point averages are equal to or better than SATs as predictors of college performance. This, too, is inaccurate. Looking at all U.S. high school graduates in any given year, we find the distribution of grade point averages (GPAs) is remarkably uniform - and invariably bell-shaped - across the nation despite enormous local and regional differences in high school quality or curricula. There is statistically no way that such similar high school GPA profiles could accurately reflect the highly variable academic abilities of the American high school graduating cohort. If there is any truth at all to the claims of SAT defectors in this regard, it is that among their own students - most of whom have graduated from academically superior public or private schools - SATs and high school GPAs are highly correlated. Analysts have pointed out, however, that if high school GPAs were to more generally replace SATs as the primary admissions criterion to get into top colleges, grade inflation would very likely erode the predictive validity of GPAs even at privileged public or private high schools.

How about purported class and race biases? There is no question that poor and minority students do less well on SAT tests than affluent and non-minority students. But the fault lies not with the tests, but with the quality of education - and perhaps cultural and social factors - to which poor and minority students are exposed. There is absolutely no evidence that such students, when admitted on other non-test criteria, have greater academic success in college than would have been predicted by their SATs. What colleges really mean when they assert that their poor or minority enrollees do well despite low SAT scores is that, with sufficient additional counseling and academic assistance (and maybe some covert grade inflation), they can get such students to succeed.

So what is really going on? The most honest explanation for SAT defection is that elite institutions want to have it both ways when it comes to selectivity. Many - perhaps a majority - of non-selective U.S. colleges and universities (including most in SUNY) require SATs, but simply set low or flexible SAT score thresholds as admissions criteria. They recruit "diverse" student bodies by allowing for diverse SAT scores. Elite schools could obviously do this too, admitting students within a broad range of SAT scores. Having the SAT data could even give them a better handle on allocating their tutoring and counseling resources where they might be most needed. But then these places would no longer be "selective." And in the U.S. News kind of college ranking protocols, selectivity is one of the key indicators; not being selective throws you into ranking purgatory. Therefore, by feigning indifference to SAT scores they either force the rankers to look only at the other collegiate characteristics in which they typically excel (like expenditures per student, faculty-student ratios or endowments); or even more disingenuously - knowing that most of their top admittees will have furnished SAT scores "optionally" - they do report SAT averages, conveniently cleansed of the otherwise low-scoring diversity cohort.

Frankly, if SAT defection were only limited to the rarified world of semi-elite liberal arts colleges, I would not care one way or the other. It's a free country; these are private institutions and if this is where political correctness du jour takes them, so be it. The greater potential harm in discounting SAT or comparable objective tests as admissions criteria will be visited on non-elite institutions, most of them public, that enroll the lion's share of American college students. They will drink the anti-SAT admissions Kool-Aid promoted by their richer, more "selective" peers but won't have the resources to process and evaluate the kinds of subjective applicant characteristics that could serve as substitutes or surrogates for SATs. And, unlike their more affluent private peers, they certainly won't be able to compensate for the academic deficiencies of entering students with supplemental tutoring or counseling.

I sincerely hope that SAT defection is only a fad, limited to small high-end institutions. The arguments advanced by the as yet tiny band of top colleges or universities that are abandoning the SAT are empirically unfounded, if not downright fraudulent. When it comes to protecting their own academic standards, they may have any number of ways in which they can live without SATs, both in choosing whom to admit, and teaching them once they are enrolled. Unfortunately, however, the collegiate stratum from which SAT defectors come serves as a role model for the rest of higher education. Thus, the disparagement of the SAT as an admissions criterion by the top tier schools may set an unfortunate precedent for the rest, risking widespread debasement of national collegiate academic standards that are not all that high to begin with.

-----------------------------

Peter D. Salins served as Provost of the State University of New York (SUNY) System from January 1997 to October, 2006, responsible for university-wide academic planning and standards, including admissions and instititional research. He iscurrently University Professor of Political Science and Director of the Graduate Program in Public Policy at Stony Brook University.



Comments (10)

haskell:

The Wake Forest admissions office has a nice Q&A about their SAT/ACT. The rationale is apparently to afford "equality of opportunity" to those who apply. I am not at all interested in equality of opportunity. I am stacking the deck, as best I know how, to get my child admitted to the school that he wishes to attend. An illustrative anecdote: In my home state, in the spring, baseball rules high school athletics. I met the coach of a perennial state champtionship team, and asked him about his 'cut' policy. Do upperclassman get cut from the team when there is a more promising younger player? He said no, that his policy was that, once on the team, if the player met his contract GPA, practiced diligently, and attended team functions, that player would remain on the team. He stated sadly, though, that last year there were 3 openings on the team with 112 kids at tryouts. Those of us who recognize we are stewards of our children and their abilities are going to give that child every advantage. You cannot compare GPAs across the board. My daughter attended a NE prep school, was upper middle of her class, had 1400 SATs and put Wake Forest first on her list of colleges. She was not accepted. Why should those of us who have decent, talented, hard-working children be put at a disadvantage because of perceived cultural differences or advantages? Show me that there is some demonstrable benefit to such a policy. Not just some wishful research by an Associate Professor of Sociology. As far as I am concerned, diversity equals devisiveness. I have noted that truly gifted people tend to be blind to race, gender, etc. It is the less gifted folks that so desperately cling to group identity.

rosanne soifer:

Centuries ago I took the SAT as a requirement for college admission. I'm one of those people who don't seem to do much above average on any standardized test,so my SAT scores was nothing spectacular. However, I had decent grades and work experience (I'm a professional musician.) by the time I graduated highschool. I got into and graduated from the college of my choice in 3 and 1/2 years.
SAT scores shouldn't be dropped altogether, but they need to be taken into consideration along with work experience, demonstrated artistic abilities, etc. Eliminating them totally and thereby admitting underqualified students to increase "diversity" is a waste of time and money.The only thing that will increase by doing this is probably the drop-out rate.

Anonymous:

I hold both an undergraduate degree and master's degree from a highly selective and esteemed university. I did not perform well at all on SATs and I did stellar in college and graduate school. Drop the SAT - it is just another money-making instituion whose time has come and really gone! Why don't universities and colleges develop their own admission tests so they can then better choose who "has what it takes" at their schools? College should be available to everyone who wishes to attend - bottomline. Let's drop the elitist attitudes.

Folly, definitely folly. Colleges who abandon the SAT are, I would bet, much more interested in attracting a "diverse" freshman class than they are interested in making sure that the students they admit actually have what it takes to succeed. I'd like to see these colleges start putting their money where their mouths are, and release graduation information (grouped by ethnicity and socioeconomic status, of course), so that we can ALL see whether the students who choose not to submit SAT scores do as well as those who do, or whether the graduation rate will stay the same after the change is made. The few studies I've seen suggest that this is not the case.

I love the criticism of the SAT as a "money-making" institution. That's a classic, knee-jerk anti-testing attitude. Here's a test that doesn't cost very much, and those who request it can often get the fee waived. But what's the financial impact of a student who takes out massive loans to attend a college for which they are not qualified? Do you think the college cares whether or not they graduate? Are they going to give that tuition money back? You don't think that admitting students who have a low chance of graduating isn't a "money-making" scheme?

As for why schools don't create their own admissions test, or why they don't take factors into account - many of them do. Many of them rely heavily on interviews, essays, and the like. But I would wager that most colleges, after crunching the numbers, have discovered two things - one, that the SAT predicts GPA better than any other single predictor for students as a whole, and two, that admissions based heavily on SAT scores don't produce the "diversity" that colleges like to advertise. The move away from the SAT is a political one, pure and simple, and it's a move that has no negative implications for the school itself, and plenty of negative consequences for students who go heavily into debt to enter a school for which they aren't prepared.

Kate:

My SATs, taken back in the dark ages of the 70s, were great, and my grades mediocre. My own kids, veterans of grade inflation, have decent grades and good SATs. But I'm not sure that either grades or test scores predict much.

Tom:

Anon, clearly you don't understand statistics* or the challenges of scale** so when you say others are elitist you just sound ignorant.

* - The SAT (or ACT) is not used to predict whether one particular student will be successful. It is used to predict the successfulness of a cohort. There are students with poor test scores that succeed and students with great test scores that fail. An institution however can reasonably expect that for every hundred students accepted with a particular test score, more of them with high test scores will be successful than those with low test scores.

** - Maybe you only applied and were accepted to one institution so the idea of being tested by that one institution seems reasonable. However, many students will apply to many institutions and individual testing by each institution will be cost and time prohibited for students and institutions alike. Evaluating a test is expensive: tests that are open-ended and allow for subjective grading require extensive amounts of time for grading (to ensure consistency) while tests with fixed solutions require extensive amounts of time for authoring (to ensure consistency).

Contrary to Salins' contentions, numerous studies have shown that the SAT I test is a very weak predictor of student success in college. At best there is a weak correlation between SAT I scores and first-year grades; and, almost no correlation between SAT I scores and ultimate success in college. Other indicators such as a student's rank in his or her high school class, the number of AP classes a student has taken, and his or her scores on SAT II achievement tests seem to be better predictors of success in college. Though even these are far from perfect.

Even noted conservative author Charles Murray has come to the conclusion that the basic SAT test is not a useful predictor of success in college (see http://irascibleprofessor.com/comments-07-19-07. htm for a more detailed discussion.)

Personally, I think the ACT is a better test than the SAT, and that the AP and IB tests should play a far larger role in admissions. The problem with high school grades is simple: high school quality varies dramatically. Graduate and professional schools can adjust for the varying quality of undergraduate institutions by using rating guides and school reputation (for quality as well as grading policy and department strength), but there is not an equivalent tool for high school quality.

Sheldon:

Dear Haskell,
In regards to "I am stacking the deck, as best I know how, to get my child admitted to the school that he wishes to attend." and "As far as I am concerned, diversity equals devisiveness." I have an illustrative anecdote for you. Several months ago, I had lunch with a friend who spent the meal worrying about her daughter, who is first in our daughters' junior class. She worried that the rigorous AP teacher was going to ruin her daughter's grade point average. She told me about the summer trip to Fiji she and her husband (both doctors) were paying thousands of dollars for to send their daughter to conduct "research." She told me about the trip the family recently took to give her daughter a tour of all the Ivies (hundred of miles from here). I'm sure she's also spending the up to $8000 parents can now spend to have their children take SAT prep courses. I love my friend;she's not very different from many, many parents today who want the "best" for their kids.

The next day I started tutoring a low-income black student at the same high school who is trying to raise her SAT scores so she can follow her dream of getting into college and becoming a sign-language interpretor. She comes from a family with seven children. She has no father and her mother is in prison. She is being raised by a grandmother who is struggling with cancer. This student works until 11:00 at night at a nearby hotel five nights a week. That means she has only two nights a week when she can start studying before 11pm. And yet she met with me week after week and studied hard. She asked if she could borrow my SAT prep book and take it home to study. She had no parent behind her stacking any deck. She used her own money to pay for the test.

I'd like to believe that you think, as I do, that having your child get to meet and know and understand a young woman like the one I tutored would be a valuable experience. That getting to see the world through the eyes of those who have not had someone stacking the deck for them but have had to figure out how to make their own way in the world is an enriching, meaningful experience.

Wil:

It is transparently obvious that liberal universities are abandoning all ojective entrance criteria so thay they may arrogantly and aggressively discriminate against caucasian students. This is the very heart and soul of modern liberalism. All other arguments and discussions are merely distractions and obfuscations to allow them to aggressively enact their viciously racist agenda. But pointing this out is like saying "The Sun is hot", or "Dogs tend to bark".

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