SAT: Still Applicable Today?
As more colleges become test-optional, a revamped SAT attempts to address criticisms
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It’s 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. You’re sitting in a classroom with 30 other kids, filling in bubble after bubble with your No. 2 pencil while trying not to fall asleep. Three hours and 45 minutes have never felt so long. You wonder what makes this test so important. You know you’re smart, but you don’t think well under pressure – you take time to make a decision, and the SAT isn’t giving you enough of that. You turn to look at your friend sitting next to you, whose parents were able to shell out the money for a test prep class. She is furiously filling in answers, and you know she must be better prepared than you. You get good grades in school, but this test asks difficult questions with obscure vocabulary on random topics you’ve never learned about.
How is it fair that your hopes for college come down to one nerve-wracking morning like this?
Within the past five years, seven Massachusetts colleges have become “test-optional” and one has become test-blind. A test-optional policy means that students have the option of sending in their scores from the SAT or ACT, the other big standardized admission test, when applying to college if they feel the scores will help their application, but they are not required submit them. In June, Hampshire College, in Amherst, became the only competitive college in the country with a “test-blind” policy, meaning it will no longer look at applicants’ test scores at all.
According to FairTest, a national organization that opposes the emphasis on standardized tests, 28 colleges and universities in Massachusetts are now test-optional or “test-flexible,” meaning applicants can opt not to send test scores or can choose to submit some combination of test results, including results of SAT subject tests or AP exams. The list includes a number of selective Massachusetts schools, such as Smith College in Northampton, Brandeis University in Waltham, and Assumption College, Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and College of the Holy Cross, all in Worcester. All told, about 800 colleges and universities, or roughly one-quarter of all four-year higher ed institutions in the country, now have test-optional admissions policies.
Don Honeman, dean of admissions and financial aid at Clark, says that the university did its own research before deciding to change to a test-optional policy. Clark’s admissions office examined the six factors that they took into account when making an admissions decision: high school GPA, types of high school courses taken (AP classes, honors classes, etc.), the Common Application personal essay, teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, and test scores.
“The worst predictor of how well students were going to do at Clark was standardized test scores,” says Honeman. “So it became pretty clear that how a kid does on a test on a Saturday morning in high school has almost no bearing on how well they ultimately do in college.”
The College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, has taken some of the criticism to heart. In March, it announced changes to the SAT that it says will better align the test with high school learning and college readiness, including a move away from obscure vocabulary words and a heightened focus on critical reading and thinking. The College Board has also acknowledged the concerns that private test prep classes tilt the college admissions process toward students from higher income families.
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The SAT was first used by a handful of colleges in 1926. By introducing a standardized test into the college admissions process, where family pedigree and connections had long ruled, the aim was to create a fairer system based solely on merit. Almost 100 years later, however, the SAT is now being criticized for having just the opposite effect. Critics of the test have leveled two main charges: That it does not accurately assess important skills and knowledge that students will need in college, and that it favors wealthier students whose families can afford test prep courses that boost their scores.
Two major tests dominate the college admissions standardized testing world, the ACT and the SAT. While the SAT was considered a better assessment for many years and was the test taken by most students, the ACT has recently gained popularity, and in 2012 for the first time more students took the ACT than the SAT.
Meanwhile, test prep courses, which research says give a huge advantage to students from middle-class and wealthier families, have become a multimillion-dollar industry. SAT prep courses run by companies like Kaplan and the Princeton Review can cost upwards of $1,000, while the cost of private tutors can be many times that amount.Questions about the relevance of SAT or ACT scores to college readiness have been raised by a number of studies, including one released earlier this year. The study, conducted by two former admissions officials at Bates College, in Maine, looked at results among students at 33 public and private universities. It found that students with strong high school GPAs perform well in college even if their test scores are moderate or low. “Many of us who have spent our careers as secondary or university faculty and administrators find compelling the argument that ‘what students do over four years in high school is more important than what they do on a Saturday morning,’” the authors wrote.
“The availability of high-priced test prep can add an advantage to kids whose parents can pay for it,” says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest. Taking a prep course “is like a steroid,” he says. “It boosts your test performance but it doesn’t make you smarter or better academically.”
In March, the College Board responded to the criticisms by announcing major changes to the SAT that aim to make it a better gauge of college readiness. Instead of deducting points for wrong answers, there will be no penalty for guessing. Vocabulary words will be less arcane. The test scoring, which has used three measures, math, critical reading, and writing, with a top score of 2400, will return to the 1600-point scale formerly used, giving equal weight (a maximum score of 800 each) to math and English. A written essay will now be optional, and students will have twice the amount of time to write it. There will also be a greater focus on evidence-based reading and writing, with each new test including analysis of a document that has played a key role in US or world history.
These changes promise “a clearer, stronger focus on the knowledge, skills, and understandings most important for college and career readiness and success,” according to the College Board’s overview of the redesigned test.
As for the criticism that the test favors students from wealthier families, College Board president David Coleman has been frank in acknowledging the problem. “It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Coleman said in March when announcing plans for a revamped SAT. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”
The College Board announced plans to partner with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free online test prep for the redesigned SAT. The Board will also provide income-eligible students with four waivers to send their scores to colleges free of charge.
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Even as the College Board works to address criticism of the SAT’s economic biases and its relevance to college readiness, the move toward test-optional admissions policies continues on US campuses. In March, Emmanuel College became the most recent Massachusetts school to go test-optional. The Boston college says the decision “allows Emmanuel to recruit candidates who challenge themselves academically and perform well in the classroom, but do not believe their test scores are an accurate reflection of their overall ability to succeed.” The college says the decision was based on research that “has confirmed that the combination of the strength of a student’s high school curriculum and grades are the strongest predictors of academic success in college.”
Hampshire College, which does not give grades and relies instead on written evaluations of its students’ work, has gone one step further. Beginning this fall, the Amherst college will not accept test scores at all as part of the admissions process, making it the sole “test-blind” competitive college or university in the country.
The SAT “has nothing to do with what [students’] habits are, their motivations, how passionate they are about learning,” says Meredith Twombly, Hampshire’s dean of admissions and financial aid.
The decision means the college will no longer be included in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of US colleges and universities, but Twombly says the school is not concerned about that. “Most students who are looking at Hampshire College don’t tend to be the ones too caught up in the U.S. News ranking,” she says. “They tend to be looking for something a little different anyway and they measure success a little differently than U.S. News.”
Despite the growth in the number of test-optional schools, about 75 percent of US four-year colleges and universities still require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.
Patrick Cameron, the assistant director of admissions at Becker College in Worcester, says the tests are helpful in assessing applicants because high schools can differ widely in the caliber of their curriculum and grading. “The SATs and ACTs kind of level the playing field because no two high schools are alike,” says Cameron. “The rigor of the courses, the requirements, are all a little different, and the SAT is standard across the board. Everyone is taking the same exact test.”
John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission at Boston College, says BC has found that SAT scores are an accurate predictor of students’ freshman year GPAs. While it “isn’t the most important factor” in BC’s admissions decisions, he says of SAT scores, “it is an important factor.”
Asking whether test scores or high school grades are the best predictor of college success may not be the right question, says Stacy Caldwell, a vice president at the College Board. “In nearly all validity studies, high school GPA and SAT scores in combination are shown to be the best predictors of college success, and the College Board continues to advocate for a variety of factors to be considered in the admissions process,” she said in an email.
Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment management at Northeastern University, which requires test scores from applicants, is encouraged by the redesign of the SAT. The test “will be more in line with the kind of work that you’ve done in high school,” she says. What’s more, she says, Northeastern, like most schools requiring test scores, conducts a holistic review of applications, taking into account many other factors, from grades and extracurricular activities to community service and the personal essay.
“There are a number of pieces of the pie, and to really understand the applicant fully, we need to assess all of those pieces,” says Brown.The good news for those convinced that standardized tests don’t fairly capture their ability to succeed in college is that there are a growing number of test-optional colleges and universities to choose from. Meanwhile, with the SAT redesign, there is some fresh hope for those trudging into test centers early on Saturday mornings that the test may not feel quite as much like the alien inquisition that has caused so many to break into a cold sweat.
Anna Spack, a rising junior at Clark University, was a CommonWealth intern this summer.