News’ View: Yale should keep the SAT — but only for now

To some this week, Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons must sound like a hero. Chair of a committee that explored — and ultimately discounted — the present worth of the SAT, he told his school’s newspaper this week that one day, the test might be optional for prospective Cantabs.

It’s a sexy proposal, to be sure, and his larger point that the SAT “may not be critical to making good admission decisions” is well taken. Common sense mandates that every admissions office take seriously the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s plea for schools to reconsider how the test fits into an applicant’s portfolio.

But Yale should not follow suit. It can do better.

Admissions testing issues are thorny and complex. This much, however, seems simple: while the SAT itself is flawed — its creators would not even deny this — the concept of standardized testing is, in fact, noble.

Prior to such exams, admissions officers enjoyed a limited, and purely qualitative, applicant portfolio consisting mainly of a transcript, recommendations and an interview. How, officers would wonder, does the ‘A’ at Andover compare to the ‘A’ at the small high school in Tecumseh, Nebraska? Without an answer, applicants from elite northeastern prep schools were favored.

Enter the SAT. Though flawed, the playing field begins to level. Intelligent applicants from Indianapolis score as high as top-ranked students at Choate, thus demonstrating their academic fitness.

But so much has changed since then. Preparation courses have proliferated. The admissions game has been over-hyped. And our society has transformed. (When the College Board began, the Model T had not yet been introduced.)

It’s no surprise, then, that over the years, frustration mounted. Some colleges, like Bowdoin, declared the SAT optional.

Such policies, though, have proven to be little more than gimmicks, benefiting few and hurting others.

In an interview Wednesday, Arthur Howe Jr. ’43, the College’s admissions dean from 1952 to 1965, called the SAT “a minimally useful test.” But, he added, “throwing out anything that’s useful is unwise. The tests can be one little clue to help you think intelligently about a candidate.”

The real trouble is that we don’t have an alternative to the SAT. For now, it’s the lesser evil. But that’s where Yale can come in: The University should lead higher education toward a fresh approach to testing.

To his credit, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel ’75 has not indicated he would be closed-minded to such solutions. We’re thankful.

And fresh approaches do exist. Look no farther than Medford, Mass., for example, where Tufts Dean Robert Sternberg ’72 is leading his school’s admissions in a novel, if risky, direction, examining not only tested analytical skills in prospective students but also emotional intelligence, wisdom, creativity and common sense. In this space tomorrow, we will flesh out his ideas and those of other bold thinkers.

The SATs have, in the words of a former Yale admissions director and university secretary, “had their chance.”

That administrator is not just any one-time official. It is Sam Chauncey ’57, the son of Henry Chauncey, who founded the firm behind the SATs since the 1940s — the Educational Testing Service.

“If somebody at Yale feels there would be an alternative measure that could be used,” Chauncey said, “Amen!”

After a pause, he added, “And if my dad were living, he would say exactly the same thing.”


  • JAT

    If the SAT is what is keeping you from Yale, maybe you shouldn't be here. Everyone seems to forget this tests BASIC stuff. If you can't nail the basic stuff, why are you applying to Yale?

  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    The SAT needs to be retained as a prerequisite for admission to Yale and other colleges, because it serves as a standard instrument that assesses all high school students equally. Some high schools may have grade inflation whereby teachers give students higher grades than they deserve; in other high schools, it may be difficult to receive an "A" from some teachers. The SAT corrects this discrepancy by being a standard test that is taken by all high school students. With the SAT, students are graded equally -- either their answers are right or they are wrong; there is no room for teacher bias. For example, if a student received all "A's" and "B's" in high school, and that student did poorly on the SAT, then that high school probably used grade inflation. Bottom line: Unless another evaluation instrument is developed to help to equally determine student knowledge, the SAT must continue to be the modus operandi for college admissions officers!

  • Anonymous

    if you want to keep the quality of the class, SATs must be kept. Taking away SATs will lower standards, you can't do that at schools like Yale.

  • Anonymous

    George, I understand your opinions about an equal measuring stick for all schools, and I also have to disagree with some of your statements. If a student receives all A's and B's in school and does poorly on the SAT, there are many other explanations. 1) Most of the other students paid for an expensive prep course which gave them an advantage and skewed the grade scale. 2) The student learns really well in a small classroom setting, but just doesn't do well on multiple choice reading comprehension exams. 3) The student's high school is a really great learning environment for him/her, but isn't a typical high school. The range in learning styles of adolescents is huge. Do we really expect all schools to be equally challenging in the same way? The SAT may level the playing field, but not on the basis of learning ability or intellectual potential. It simply determines who has the ability or the money to do really well on a multiple choice exam.

  • JAT

    Ava P. is just an example of our current "don't hurt feelings" and "everyone has equal ability" society. If there are differences it MUST be the fault of somebody or something else (aka, money, "learning styles").

    So let me get this straight. If you can't afford expensive prep classes, learn in small classrooms, or have an "atypical" high school, you will not be able to find out the "main idea of passages" and will put a wrong answer down? You will also not know basic algebra and geometry? You will not know how to write coherent passages? You will not be able to do these things AND you complain about not getting into Yale??

    Just to put things into perspective. In Japan, you test into the university that you want to attend. I believe you can only choose one university, so if you don't get in, you don't go to school for a year. This has lead to many Tokyo University-calibre students not going to college for a couple years. Korea and China have once a year tests that will essentially determine students' futures.

    The SAT? Practically monthly and you can take as many times as you want. It is possibly the SOFTEST test in the world. It bewilders me that any Yale-calibre student would complain about this.

  • Eli

    All that is needed to dominate the SAT is prep tests.

    Your high school guidance office (ESPECIALLY in poor areas) will readily supply you with these.

    Practice, practice, practice- you will be fine.

    It has worked for millions of college students.

  • E.

    Eli, I definitely agree with you. I am a high school senior and attend a fairly low-performing school that doesn't offer SAT prep classes and the like.

    I borrowed a Princeton Review SAT book, did the practice tests, briefed through the chapters and scored a respectable 2200.

    Expensive tutors and classes are very unnecessary.