Report questions SAT

A report questioning the value of the SAT exam as an indicator of academic performance in college is causing a stir in the higher-education community — a stir that may eventually reach as far as Yale.

College-admissions exams like the SAT and ACT are not effective in determining an applicant’s suitability for admission, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Instead, the report recommends, universities should rely more on exams that closely reflect high-school curricula, including SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.

And universities, it appears, are listening. Harvard Dean of Admission and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons, who chaired the NACAC commission, told the Harvard Crimson yesterday that, based on the report’s findings, Harvard may one day move to a system in which the required SAT or ACT score were replaced by five SAT Subject Test scores.

Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said he is still reading the report and it is simply too early to speculate about the effect it may have on Yale admissions. Still, he said, the University will be studying the report’s reasoning and conclusions.

“I expect to spend time during the year ahead reviewing the commission findings, reviewing our testing requirements, holding discussions within the University and participating in discussions with colleagues at other institutions,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mail.

Fitzsimmons pointed to the misuse of test data to determine scholarship eligibility, and in the case of the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings, as a measure of the quality of an institution. Students who do not have access to test-preparation resources, the report says, are at a disadvantage.

“Many less affluent students are not well informed about the impact of testing on college options and lack knowledge of or access to critical information about preparing for and taking the tests,” the report said.

Jon Reider, the director of college counseling at the private University High School in San Francisco, said he is glad the commission addressed what he called the “fundamental failings” of the exams.

“The SAT is advertised to predict how well an applicant will perform in his or her freshman year, but who cares how you start? It is about how you finish,” he said.

Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford University, said it is encouraging that representatives from major universities have started acknowledging that the exams in their current form benefit only the test makers and preparation companies such as Kaplan or the Princeton Review.

“It is clear the train is beginning to leave the station,” he said. “It is time for Yale and other universities to get on it and make the SAT optional.”

Over a dozen Yale students interviewed welcomed the possibility of reconsidering the mandatory nature of these exams.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Nathaniel Glasser ’11, who said the SAT merely tests how quickly students can finish, rather than their academic potential.

Natalia Emanuel ’12 said she supports the report’s recommendation that colleges use SAT Subject Tests, AP and IB exams in place of the SAT.

“The SAT [Subject Tests] actually test you on what you know, not on how well you can take the test,” she said.

But Eric Anderson ’11, a staff photographer for the News, said he supports the use of standardized tests because, for the most part, they level the playing field, especially when supplemented by other parts of the application package.

“When combined with other factors, such as grades, exams such as the SAT provide a way to judge applicants evenly,” he said.

Brenzel said no changes will take effect during this admissions cycle since the University has already received several hundred applications for the class of 2013.

The report was prepared by the NACAC Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission and will be presented to the full Association at its annual meeting in Seattle this week.


  • Anonymous

    Isn't the SAT a better indicator of "potential," while the SAT Subject Tests are more indicative of the quality of your high school? My guess is that students from poor, inner-city schools would have just as hard -- perhaps far harder -- a time on the SAT Subject Test because it is material, not logic-based. Students from elite prep schools probably would have even more of an advantage.

  • Someone Somewhere

    The SAT reasoning test is perhaps becoming less and less relevant, but even so, I believe that having the SAT in place is far more fair than replacing the test with the subject tests. Doing well on the subject tests require much more resources, including well-taught and well-funded classes which disadvantaged students rarely have access to. And the possibility of replacing the SAT's with AP tests is even more absurd. How many under-funded public high schools even have AP classes offered?

  • agreed

    I co-sign with #2 - furthermore, the SATI and SATII are so coachable with the right access to prep classes and higher quality educational resources that emphasizing either over the relationship between the student and her opportunities may put lower-income students at a further disadvantage.

  • Jane

    SAT and AP tests are expensive. Having to take multiple tests instead of one test would not help economically disadvantaged students in that respect.

    Moreover, a problem that is often overlooked is that even straight-A students who have been to very poor (in both economic terms and in terms of quality) schools cannot handle the rigors of a university setting. It doesn't help either the student or the institution to be accepting people who are likely to fail out. In such cases, SAT scores are a better indicator of how likely that is than grades. Perhaps having the SAT (as is, or perhaps modifying it slightly), but using it only to put grades and teacher recommendations into perspective is the best solution.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with everyone above that eliminating the SAT and using more Subject Tests would continue to disadvantage students from underfunded schools and continue to place emphasis on tutoring, but I think there's another problem as well. Requiring more subject tests would also affect students from less mainstream schools. For example, say a high school offers a marine biology class and an animal behavior class in addition to the standard biology, chemistry, and physics. A student with a real interest in these areas who wanted to substitute these electives for other science classes would have a hard time doing so if she was required to take five subject exams, and her only choices for science were biology, chemistry, and physics. She would either be forced to learn all the material for the test on her own (which really isn't the point of the subject tests) or forgo her true science interests for the general class that would allow her to meet college requirements. In addition, teachers of areas with subject tests would feel more pressure to tailor their teaching to the material on the test. A policy requiring five standardized subject tests wouldn't be an objective measuring stick, but actually would end up decreasing diversity in curricula in schools as each school attempted to prepare its students for the collegeboard exams. That would be a real disservice to students in excellent, innovative schools all over the country. And, as noted above, the switch wouldn't even solve the current problems.

  • Anonymous

    SAT and AP tests are expensive, but for those in need, there are fee waivers that let students take the SAT up to three times for free. SAT subject test fees can be waived two times. The problem isn't with the cost of the tests themselves per se, but that there are somehow inherent disadvantages that face low-income students who take the tests.

    In my opinion though, the SAT is a wonderful opportunity for disadvantaged students to show their potential. If a low-income student scores very well on the SAT, the student has a huge leg up. The tests aren't terribly difficult to prepare for, as are very consistent from one test to another. A trip to the library and several hours is usually enough to boost scores for a bright student. The high score will then be seen in context of a disadvantaged background, showing that the student overcame adversity. If I were a low-income student applying for 2013, 2014, or the years beyond, I would think that eliminating the SAT would cut my chances, not make them any better.

  • #1

    I'm glad #2 and #3 agree about the SAT vs SAT Subject test point.

    Honestly though, why is Harvard considering switching to the "five SAT Subject Test" method? Are they REALLY that dumb?

    There are flaws with the SAT. That said, with the number of 4.0 applicants who apply to Yale, there needs to be some standardized system like it to differentiate between candidates.

  • the thing is…

    The thing is, the SAT I really doesn't measure much. It certainly doesn't measure "potential." The College Board admitted that a few years ago when it changed the name from "Scholastic Aptitude Test" to "Scholastic Assessment Test."

    This article fails to mention it, but if you read around in the large academic literature on this topic, you'll find that high school grades are a FAR FAR better predictor of college performance than is the SAT I -- it's not even close. And that ought to give fans of the SAT I pause, because we all know that an "A" at one school is not much like an "A" at another. And yet even so, just counting "A"s on high school transcripts is a radically more effective way to predict college grades than is the SAT I.

    It's true that all standardized tests are coachable and that the wealthy will use super-expensive prep to gain an edge. But subject tests, which are somewhat more like high school grades (in that they show learning) are slightly more relevant to actual college performance than is the SAT I. Thus, I'll be surprised if 20 years from now, we haven't moved to something more like today's subject tests.

  • But the thing is… (replied)

    If five different candidates applying to Yale all have 4.0's, then grades clearly don't help you to DIFFERENTIATE because they are all excellent. Yes, high school GPA's may be a better predictor of general college "performance" (as measured by college gpa), but Yale and other elite colleges are not turning down 4.0 students for students with 3.3's and high SATs. Rather, colleges use SAT's to try to gauge students with similarly high GPA's -- and assuming that a 3.97 from random school is that much better than a 3.94 from strong private school is patently silly.

    What is "learning"? SAT subject tests certainly don't show learning -- they show an ability to recall facts and formulas covered in classes, which is infinitely easier for kids whose classes had strong teachers (e.g. at elite schools). Rather, I think "learning" is really about learning how to learn as opposed to memorizing formulas and facts (the overwhelming majority of the subject tests). The SAT tries to measure one's ability to reason and analyze, the essence of any strong education. If the subject tests are "somewhat like high school grades," then how can they tell you anything substantively different things than a high school transcript?

  • Renae

    The comments imply that economic poverty by itself can cause low performance on these standardized tests. Yet, it is equally true that student success has more to do with family structure than income levels. The United States and Great Britain produced great scholars, artists, scientists and inventors during the last century from families with menial incomes, especially when compared to today's living standards. These families generally were two parent stable families that provided a nurturing environment for the children and encouraged education. Today, the family structure is broken down and greed for more money and selfish personal choices triumph over caring for the children. As a society, we must emphasize and promote stable families and care for more children. The majority culture appears however to think of children as an afterthought, as a unintended consequence of sex and marriage and romance rather than the actual goal. Priorities have changed.

  • Rosie

    I went to a wealthy private school. Almost all my friends took SAT prep courses. I did not, and my SAT scores were actually thought of as low by my college counselors, and they were worried I wouldn't get into my top choice schools (it makes their numbers look bad if I don't.) But guess what--I'm here, and my "performance" (ie. GPA) is good.

    Obviously, even having "college counselors" as opposed to an overworked guidance counselor put me at a HUGE advantage. But in the end, the SAT wasn't the be-all-end-all.

    I guess my point is that the problems economically disadvantaged students face won't be magically fixed by making the standardized testing requirements somehow more fair. The problems run deeper than that, and the SAT isn't wealthy students' only advantage. Thinking that these problems can be fixed by fixing the SAT is naive. So yeah, maybe it's worth looking into. But perhaps even better would be starting some kind of national program that could get bright but economically disadvantaged high-schoolers some SAT prep. The College Board can certainly afford to give some of their gobs of cash back.