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College-Admissions Group Weighs Calls to Dump SAT

By Scott J. Cech — September 28, 2007 5 min read
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A special commission of the National Association for College Admission Counseling studying the use of standardized admissions tests didn’t call for the expulsion of the SAT at the association’s annual meeting here last week, but it’s clear the 81-year-old exam would not be voted “most popular” either.

In a session billed as a “listening meeting” of the commission, which is chaired by Harvard University’s dean of admissions and financial aid, more than 100 high school counselors and college-admissions officers packed a standing-room only meeting room to listen and voice thoughts about the validity and usefulness of admissions tests.

On the subject of the SAT, though, most of the speakers differed mainly on whether they wanted to see the SAT made optional or replaced altogether.

“Maybe we should try to stake something out” on making the test optional, William R. Fitzsimmons, the Harvard dean, suggested to the crowd. “Should we be for it or against it? I’m serious.”

“For it,” several people said loudly.

“I think the negatives far outweigh the positives,” said Brad MacGowan, a counselor at Newton North High School in Newtonville, Mass., who favors making the SAT at least optional.

“There is a lot about [the SAT] that … has nothing to do with the curriculum. The emperor has no clothes, and he’s pretty ugly, too.”

Discussion over the value of the SAT has been at a low boil for years, but the debate has heated up in recent months.

‘A Negative Force’

Last July saw the publication of “Abolish the SAT,” an article by onetime SAT champion Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

The article, which appeared in the July/August issue of The American, a magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank where Mr. Murray is a scholar, argues that “events have conspired to make the SAT a negative force in American life.”

Then, in advance of the annual meeting of the Alexandria, Va.- based National Association for College Admission Counseling, Mr. Fitzsimmons distributed the article to all his fellow commissioners.

That move fueled speculation that when the commission issues its recommendation to the 70-year-old organization’s 10,000-plus members sometime in the next year, it might recommend some kind of alternative to the hegemony now jointly enjoyed by the SAT and the ACT, the other nationally used college- entrance exam.

‘What Works Best’

When the 20-member commission started its work this past June, said David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy, it found “a surprising degree of agreement that we needed to go ahead with a statement about the appropriateness of the SAT and ACT.”

But by no means, he added, are the commissioners—who include high school counselors, college-admissions officers, and others—predisposed to recommend dumping the SAT or the ACT, which is owned by Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc.

“We’re not sitting here with an alternative assessment in our back pocket,” he said. “We just want to … articulate the admissions officers and counselors’ wish list about the process, and in so doing, exercising what leverage they have in the process.”

The commission was announced late last year, partly in response to a rash of SAT scoring errors, but also because of what is said to be a “growing” number of colleges adopting optional-test policies, though the size of that movement is in dispute.

Mr. Fitzsimmons estimated there to be about “700-some-odd.”

Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Cambridge, Mass.-based testing watchdog National Center for Fair & Open Testing, lists 755 colleges and universities as not requiring test scores from substantial numbers of applicants before admissions decisions are made.

Sandra Riley, a spokeswoman for the New York City-based College Board, which owns the SAT, said 88 percent of four-year colleges require admissions-test scores.

Mr. Schaeffer called that “bogus,” saying the number was closer to 70 percent.

Laurence Bunin, the general manager of the SAT program at the College Board, noted, “It’s really up to the colleges to figure out what works best for them.”

But he said the SAT is a vital tool for admissions officials trying to counteract the effects of secondary- school grade inflation. Mr. Bunin also dismissed any suggestion that a critical mass of opinion might be building against the SAT.

“The statistics don’t show that,” he said. “The number of SAT-takers this year is higher than it’s ever been. … The kids are showing up and taking their tests, so it’s obviously still a very important piece of information.”

Shift to Subject Tests?

Many of the speakers here called for the replacement of the SAT reasoning test by the kinds of subject tests in sciences, history, foreign languages, and other disciplines that are administered by the College Board and formerly known as the “SAT II.”

“I think the SAT subject tests are very nice—it’s a nice battery,” said Mr. Murray in an interview. His review of SAT research showed the SAT reasoning test is no better a predictor of students’ success in college than the subject tests.

He also said that if the SAT reasoning test were dumped for an expanded set of subject tests, affluent students wouldn’t stop cramming, but at least they’d “be cramming for subject matter.”

While taking test-prep classes for a chemistry subject test, for example, “they’re also going to be learning chemistry,” Mr. Murray said. “That’s better than learning test-taking.”

Mr. Fitzsimmons noted, however, that only “65 colleges, some tiny number like that, require the subject tests.” He likened the prospect of shifting the whole system of higher education admissions to turning the proverbial ocean liner.

Then there’s the sheer quantity of added staffing that would be required for a shift from one SAT to, for example, three subject tests, as Harvard requires.

“I’m being a little bit of a devil’s advocate,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said. “But I think a lot of places really, really need [standardized admissions tests].”


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