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.”