Unlike in “ATM,” “RSVP” and “PB&J,” the letters in “SAT” do not stand for anything. The College Board may have changed the name from “Scholastic Aptitude Test” to just “SAT” 13 years ago because they knew that SAT scores are about as good a measurement of students’ “scholastic aptitude” as their parents’ tax returns are.
Although high SAT scores are frequently cited as examples of “merit,” not even the College Board professes to measure creative problem-solving ability, research skills or other highly relevant characteristics of meritorious performance. Admittedly, the scores from SATs slightly correlate with college students’ first-semester grade point averages. The SAT also serves as a fabulous assessment of students’ ability to follow instructions, make strategic guesses and prepare in advance for stressful assignments. Beyond that, however, SAT scores have a negligible ability to predict much of anything that parents’ wealth or education cannot. Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, recently studied the application credentials of over 20,000 college-bound students and found that SAT scores function as a “laundering device” for information like parents’ income and high school demographics. That is, the minimal correlation between SAT scores and college grades is virtually the same as the correlation between family background and college grades. Unless universities are willing to say that family background is a fair definition of “merit,” why do they still require students to send in test scores?
Perhaps universities use SAT scores to compensate for the subjectivity of grades. After all, a student at an elite private school might have worked harder for his A than a student at an under-funded public school worked for hers. Or maybe admissions departments need the SAT to facilitate reading the thousands of applications they receive each year. At student expense, colleges receive with each application a single number from 600 to 2400 by which they can prioritize their data.
Unfortunately, not even the “objective” standards of the SAT can predict academic success in college as well as other quantifiable information that admissions departments already use, like class rank and relative difficulty of classes. While grades may be at the whims of teachers, cumulative GPA is simply a better reflection of students’ “scholastic aptitude” than a single standardized test could ever be. Despite the variability in styles and standards across individual teachers and schools, relative class rank reflects motivation and drive, which are critical assets in college. Sure, grades may be neither uniform nor perfect evaluations of ability, but the danger of internalizing SAT scores as measures of academic worth far outweighs the test’s usefulness.
Many universities much larger than Yale no longer accept SAT scores, at no educational loss. In fact, the University of Texas at Austin found that students automatically admitted because of their class rank generally outperformed their classmates with higher SAT scores. According to FairTest, 400 other schools do not require SAT scores from all applicants.
The SAT also has numerous biases that potentially hurt applicants. Women, white students from low-income or rural families, and blacks and Latinos generally perform worse on the SAT than their male, wealthy or suburban counterparts. Yet women generally earn higher high school and college grades than men; students from wealthy families can pay thousands of dollars for SAT preparation courses without admissions departments’ knowledge; and women, blacks and Latinos may be affected by what Stanford psychologist Claude Steele calls a “stereotype threat.” In one of Steele’s studies, one group of black and white students took the same aptitude test and performed similarly, but when a different group of black students were told that blacks usually perform worse on the test, they took the same test and scored lower. Such psychological or financial factors have nothing to do with academic potential.
In 1905, Harvard became the first Ivy League university to adopt the SAT. One hundred years later, Yale should become the first Ivy to reject it. The SAT provides no essential role as an indicator of academic success, and its continual usage unfairly privileges some students and legitimates the erroneous assumption that high-stakes standardized testing can accurately predict “merit.”
At the very least, Yale should state explicitly what they are using the SAT to measure. Perhaps they can take the April 2 headline from The Onion, “New SAT Section Tests Ability to Pay Tuition,” as their source of inspiration.
Nikolas Bowie is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. He is a member of Justice!, an organization working to eliminate the SAT from Yale’s admissions process.