Whom Does the SAT Benefit?

Whom Does the SAT Benefit?

Education April 21, 2014 / By Nina Fiore
Whom Does the SAT Benefit?

Research shows that the SAT is severely limited in predicting success in college. So then why all the effort to improve and save the SAT? Who does the SAT benefit?

Most of the American public and many people who work in admissions in US colleges do not see the SAT as a strong indicator of a student’s intelligence or ability to perform well in college.  So why does the SAT need to exist at all?  Why spend time and effort to “reform the test” and wait another 10+ years to see if the results of the reformed SAT's predictions are any better than the current SAT?  It makes little sense to suggest that a one-day test gives a more comprehensive picture of a student’s high school performance than the actual, comprehensive picture of a student’s high school performance via grades, referrals, and portfolios of work collected from all 4 years of high school.  Wouldn’t a much more practical route be to just get rid of the test altogether? Why all the emphasis on improving and saving the SAT?  

This led me to consider additional questions: “If so many people understand that the SAT is an ineffective measure of student performance and potential, who is perpetrating the myth that the SAT has so much influence over whether or not you get into college?” and “Who exactly benefits from the SAT remaining in use?”

The SAT has a long history of being culturally and socio-economically biased and of not providing an accurate portrayal of students’ intelligence, especially of more creative intelligences and divergent thinkers.[1] The test’s susceptibility to coaching also makes it favor those students whose parents are wealthy enough to hire test prep coaches.  According to Eric Maguire, VP of Enrollment and Communication at Ithaca College, which made SATs “optional” for entrance to their school, “Not only do these tests fail to give a truly accurate assessment of a student’s ability, but they also bar a diverse range of students from applying.”[2]  

More and more schools have been finding that the SAT provides neither an accurate nor helpful view of its applicants.  University of California has been one of the largest college systems to question the SAT. Recently, they dropped the SAT subject test requirements, citing that “Detailed research at University of California over the past 10+ years determined that the Subject Test rule was excluding many otherwise qualified applicants but not helping predict undergraduate performance.”  They also found the tests to be “an unnecessary barrier to access”[3]

In light of this and other college admissions’ criticism, The College Board, which creates and administers the SAT, has been revamping the existing tests and trying to make them less biased, less coachable, and more curriculum-based. There has been a lot of talk recently about how the “New SATs” will help to equalize the application process. That it will test students’ comprehensive knowledge from all of their high school studies, and make better predictions of who will perform well in college.  However, this was what the original SAT promised, and yet failed to deliver.  Additionally, most of this talk comes from the assessment folks themselves, namely from the PR offices at the College Board, who currently make and will continue to make a great deal of profit from administering these tests. 

A Rasmussen Report poll from March 2014 finds that “most Americans don’t think the SATs are an accurate reflection of a student’s abilities, nor do they believe they should be a major factor in college admissions… just 21% of American Adults think that, generally speaking, the results of standardized tests like the SATs are an accurate reflection of a student’s knowledge and intelligence.”[4]

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette from March 19, 2014, Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons says, “The free test prep provided by the College Board and Khan Academy will help level the playing field for students from middle-income and most economic backgrounds.” In the interview, when asked about the benefits of the new SAT, he repeatedly focuses more on the benefits of the free test prep that will be offered by Khan Academy than on the SAT itself.

In fact, although the interview presupposes Harvard’s continued use of the SATs, in the majority of the interview, Fitzsimmons focuses on how the SAT does not affect admissions decisions very much.  He says, “Test scores are just one element of our holistic review.  They can be helpful… as a rough yardstick... but only in concert with high school grades, teacher recommendations, guidance counselor reports, interviews, essays, and all the achievements a student reports on the application. Our research indicates that students with high test scores but poor high school grades are not a good bet for success at Harvard.  Those with more modest scores and strong records of achievement in the high school classroom are more likely to do well.” He adds that, above and beyond test scores, “We are always very interested in evidence of unusual achievements, academic or extracurricular.”[5]

My own experience in College Admissions also supports the notion that the SATs are not a major factor.  For 5 years, I volunteered as an Alumni Interviewer and Recruiter for Harvard College Admissions via the Harvard Club of NYC. Many elite American colleges like Harvard use Alumni Networks in cities throughout the world to interview prospective students locally, so the students do not have to travel to the university to be interviewed.  All applicants are interviewed. Most of the Alumni Interviewers are native to the cities they cover and are therefore familiar with the students’ schools and neighborhoods. In my experience, interviewers were instructed not to ask for SAT scores until the very end of the interview, so as to not bias them one way or the other during the interview. The interviewer wrote a summary of the interview and passed it along to the Harvard Club of NYC Admissions Committee, which then came together for a few weekends after all interview reports were submitted, and reviewed the reports as a group. 

As a group, we voted on and choose the applicants that we would recommend to the Harvard Admissions Office back in Cambridge, MA, ones we definitely wouldn’t recommend, and those we felt needed to have further review, either by Harvard faculty who specialized in the field the applicant planned to study or by another round of interviews to clarify points possibly missed in the first round.  These meetings ran for hours and often involved passionate and heated discussions.

Luckily, our group was very diverse  -- ethnically, racially, socio-economically, as well as in our studies and professions.  There were about 20 of us at each meeting.  Every Alumni fought for the traits and strengths they thought to be most significant towards future success, in school and in life.  The main, overall thoughts were “Who would best be able to take advantage of what Harvard has to offer?” as well as, “Who has a lot to offer Harvard and the world?”.  The good thing was that there was never just one answer to these questions.  Different people championed different strengths. 

A few championed the traditional private school student with the prerequisite amount of extracurriculars (sport, musical instrument, volunteer experience) who had an impeccable interview and perfect scores. Others would complain that those students had been “coached on how to prepare the perfect application, how to score well on the SAT, and how to give the perfect interview, ever since they were in 7th grade”.  I also remember there being a few times where the Head of the Committee would say “Well, this student is going to be bewildered because they have perfect grades and a perfect SAT score, but they aren’t going to be getting into Harvard”.  It was usually someone who came across very rehearsed and one-dimensional in their interview, and who didn’t seem to have any outstanding features that set them apart from the large crowd of applicants from elite high schools with perfect grades and perfect SATs. 

I worked with a group within the Admissions Committee that was intent on bringing smart, talented lower-income NYC students to Harvard.  Students who wouldn't normally consider Harvard either because they felt they couldn't afford it or because they were unfamiliar with it.  We would visit High Schools in traditionally lower-income neighborhoods and encourage students there to apply to Harvard.  We looked for students who might have had low SAT scores but who were well-regarded by their teachers and peers.  We were interested in students with excellent grades, amazing talents, academic and otherwise, and/or students who had exceptional school and community involvement despite also having to work part-time and/or take care of family members. These were all factors we considered a great deal with each application.  Since the members of our group were also originally from these communities, we could argue mightily, if we saw a student with great potential, about how much they had overcome to achieve their successes and, given that resourcefulness, intelligence and fortitude, how much they might be able to contribute to Harvard and to the world beyond Harvard. “It is far more impressive to raise yourself from a 0 to an 8, than to have your parents push you from an 8 to a 10”, we would argue.

My experiences showed me that there was no magic formula to getting into Harvard, or into most elite colleges.  There was, however, a genuine effort from Admissions to really cast as wide a net and look at as wide a picture as possible when considering applicants.  The best colleges take many factors into consideration and view applicants from a variety of perspectives, because they truly want to try and have the most talented, motivated, and interesting students at their schools.  Standardized tests like the SAT factor very little into this equation, and do not provide much reliable guidance about a student’s intelligence or future performance.  My own experience has been reinforced by actions of many colleges such as the UCs, Ithaca College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, Bates College, Washington State University, and over 800 American colleges, which have made either the SATs or the SAT IIs “optional” in order to attract diverse students and to remove barriers to college attendance for rural students and for students from lower-income families.

So, back to my initial questions, “Who keeps perpetuating the myth of the all-powerful SAT?” and “Who does the SAT benefit?” 

If College Admissions folks and the general public understand the severe limitations of the SATs, who is keeping up the myth of their importance in a student’s future?  Are most high schools so out of touch and obsessed with standardized testing that they continue to place an importance on the SATs that they no longer have in reality in order to support  their own test-based curriculum?  Do they encourage student competition by comparing test scores within the high school?    Or is it certain parents, consumed with competition, that make a big deal out of the test scores?  Who is still valuing these tests and making them into a money-making product?  If every parent decided to stop letting their child take the SAT, colleges would have to make their decisions without the scores, and the testing would stop.  Why don’t parents, as a whole, take back some power and exercise that option?  Or do some parents like the idea that the test might favor their child and/or want their child to go to a non-diverse school?

As for who benefits from the SAT, clearly, the SAT financially benefits the College Board.  They gain money, power and influence by working with college presidents and heads of admissions to administer and revise the tests.  Other benefactors would be test prep centers like Kaplan and Princeton Review, who make over $2 billion annually and obviously have executives with powerful connections in American education.  Standardized testing organizations like Pearson also benefit because they can point to the importance of the SAT to justify their own over-testing at the K-12 level, which incidentally makes them a great deal of money.   

Students who test well but who did not perform very well in school might also be at an advantage.  However, In 2002, a University of California panel recommending the school system eliminate the SAT requirements altogether stated, ''The advantage that the SAT I is often assumed to possess -- that it is effective at identifying students with strong potential who have not yet been able to demonstrate that potential -- is largely a phantom, at least at the University of California.''[7]  Regardless, their recommendations (and the recommendations of the University President at the time) were voted down by the California Board of Regents, which most likely contained some members with very close ties to The College Board.

More conservative colleges and conservative education groups are also in favor of keeping the SATs in use, in order to justify keeping as non-diverse a campus as possible, or as they refer to it, “placing excellence above diversity”.  A post on a conservative website says, “It seems clear that a major reason for the current trend of dropping the mandatory submission of SAT and ACT scores isn't so much admissions officers' dissatisfaction with the tests themselves as their a desire to blur admissions standards so as to let in more blacks, Hispanics, and members of other ethnic groups whose test scores are generally lower than those of whites and Asians. Racial preferences may not be popular with the general public, but politically correct college administrators, especially at private liberal-arts schools that aren't accountable to voters, continue to look for back-door ways to consider applicants' ethnicities in admissions decisions… membership in politically preferred groups rather than individual merit will become the college admissions policy of choice across the country.”[8]   

The idea that diversity means taking mediocre disadvantaged candidates over exceptional, rich, priveleged ones is completely false, horribly bigoted, and not supported by research into these students' performance in college.  Diversity is all about giving exceptional students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds as equal a chance to prove their capabilities as priveleged students.  A recent study of the performance of 123,000 students at 33 different test-optional schools over the past 8 years shows that: "test-optional admissions improves diversity [and] does not undermine academic quality... The "test-optional" kids, it seems, are more than all right... they're thriving."[9]

The current SATs and standardized testing in general are not good indicators of anything other than how wealthy and well-prepped the student was for the test.  They discriminate against all but the wealthiest students.  There is very little that is learned or retained via test prep, and creativity suffers a great deal when testing is the focus of education.  Whether in schools or in college admissions, is that really what we want for the future of American Education?  And since we won’t know whether the revised SATs do any better a job of predicting student intelligence or student outcomes for at least another generation, does keeping them around at all really make much sense?

[9] http://www.npr.org/2014/02/18/277059528/college-applicants-sweat-the-sats-perhaps-they-shouldn-t

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