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What the SAT-optional Colleges Don’t Tell You

I don’t much like the SAT. When the SAT-optional movement began to gain momentum a few years ago, I cheered. Dozens of colleges told their applicants that if they didn’t want to submit their SAT or ACT scores, they didn’t have to. Some restricted this choice to
students with high grade point averages, but it seemed to me a step in the right direction.

In my view the SAT does not reflect very well what students learn in high school. It seems more influenced by how much money their parents make. Indeed, SAT prep classes (such as those offered by Kaplan Inc., the Washington Post Company’s leading revenue source) give kids from affluent families an advantage.

So I was impressed and pleased when the SAT-Optional movement grew so strong that FairTest (the National Center for Fair & Open Testing), a non-profit group that supports the change, noted that 32 of the top 100 colleges on the U.S. News & World Report liberal arts college list no longer require every applicant to submit an SAT or ACT score.

When I started reading Jonathan P. Epstein’s article on SAT-Optional schools in the summer edition of the Journal of College Admissions, I expected a careful history of these developments, with no surprises. Epstein is a senior consultant with Maguire Associates in Boston, who specialize in advising college admissions offices. He is not a journalist, and sees no need to deliver the big news at the top of the story.

He saved his shocker for the 74th paragraph, which ripped a big hole in my happy assumptions about good guy colleges making the SAT optional. It turns out that many of these schools may not be as unselfish and public-spirited as I thought.

What motivates schools like Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Hamilton and Smith---all SAT optional colleges in the U.S. News liberal arts top 25--to break away from the SAT? Their spokespersons often cite their desire to reach out to otherwise accomplished students who might be test-phobic, and to emphasize personal qualities that cannot be reduced to a score on a 2400 point scale.

Some critics suggested that schools that made the SAT optional might see that as a way to improve their ranks. Students who decided not to submit their SATs or ACTs would presumably have lower scores. If they weren’t counted, that would raise those colleges’ SAT averages, an important part of the U.S. News ranking formula.

No, no, Epstein was told by experts. He heard second-hand that most of those SAT-optional schools were gathering scores from all students after enrollment, including those who did not submit scores for admission, and giving their full and honest SAT average to U.S. News and other organizations that asked for it. He decided to check this out. He contacted the 32 colleges and the organizations they gave their information to.

The result was stunning. Nearly all of them admitted to submitting inflated averages that did not include scores from students who did not submit them during the admissions process. Two refused to comment. Only one of them, Muhlenberg College, reported “a full and honest SAT average, requiring students who took the test to submit scores after enrolling and reporting their SAT average inclusive of those scores,” Epstein said.

This made a significant difference, he discovered. “Publicly available and privately shared data reveal that SAT scores for non-submitters average 100-150 points lower than submitters,” he wrote in his article. “Eliminating those scores for 25 percent to 50 percent of enrolling students results in manufactured SAT average increases between 25 and 75 points. These results imply that 31 of the 32 SAT-optional institutions in question are the beneficiaries of SAT average boosts. In the hyper-competitive space of the U.S. News top 100, there is no way to believe that such an outcome is an accident.”

I asked the sampling of five colleges above to respond to Epstein’s argument. Bowdoin and Bates officials pointed out that raising their U.S. News ranks could not have motivated their decision to go SAT-optional because they decided to do so before the U.S. News rankings came into existence. The other four colleges have not gotten back to me, but I will post their reactions on my Class Struggle blog when they do.

Robert J. Morse, U.S. News' data research director, said "the differences in the levels of test scores reported by schools before and after going test optional are rarely if ever large enough to make any real difference in a school's actual rankings."

Epstein suggests two ways this stealth SAT or ACT score inflation could hurt applicants to these top colleges. First, students who would otherwise be a good fit might be discouraged by the colleges’ higher than expected SAT averages and not apply. Second, the lure of the SAT-optional policy has helped produce a big jump in applications at many of these schools, making them more selective and reducing the chances of gaining admission to the school.

FairTest offers a list of all test-optional schools at| I asked Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director, to comment on Epstein’s findings: “Even if schools slightly improve their rankings by not including SAT scores from students who did not submit them, they have far more significant motivations for dropping testing requirements, including a commitment to enhancing intellectual and demographic diversity,” Schaeffer said.

“For example,” he said, “Epstein completely ignores concerns about the impact of test-prep tutors, who claim to boost the scores of applicants whose parents can pay $1,000, $5,000 or more, by 200 to 300 points. How can any admissions officer ever know whether a 700 math score reflects a test-taker’s real skill level or is the result of test-coaching ‘steroids?’

“Most importantly, why does Epstein believe that policies designed to enhance academic quality and equity should be judged based on their impact upon the deeply flawed rankings promoted by one news magazine? The truth is that a growing number of schools are recognizing that test scores do not measure merit. They know that test-optional admissions is better both for students and for their institutions.”

Just where this is going is hard to predict. Epstein notes that Schaeffer is wrong to say that he thinks the SAT optional movement should be judged by its impact on the U.S. News list. Epstein’s article explores many other ramifications of the trend toward less SAT influence on admissions. Some experts, he says, think when Harvard goes SAT-optional the balance will shift dramatically. But Schaeffer himself points out that when Harvard stopped accepting early admissions applications, few other schools followed suit. Most colleges have priorities and problems different from those of the Ivy League. For the moment, the SAT and the ACT add needed order and rationality to their admissions systems, at least in their view.

Epstein suggests other ways out of this tangle of good intentions and administrative demands. One is to follow the daring example of Sarah Lawrence College. It no longer collects SAT or ACT scores from any of its applicants, since that is the only way to ensure that those scores will not affect its admissions decisions.

For that it pays a heavy price. Without an SAT average, Sarah Lawrence’s rank can no longer be calculated by U.S. News. It no longer appears on that list. A college that in 2007 was number 47 on the list of best liberal arts colleges, a high profile spot that most college marketing executives would find impossible to refuse, is nowhere to be found in the most widely read admissions guide in the country.

Click on the comments link below and let me know which solutions to this mess appeal to you. My favorite is the one suggested to Epstein by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and author of “The Big Test,” the best book ever written about the SAT. Instead of making the SAT optional, Lemann says, replace it with a better test. We could have something that actually measures what students have learned in high school and includes many essay sections to gauge analytical skills.

I think the college level tests we give high schoolers now, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge, would serve well as college entrance exams, but I don’t expect anyone to embrace that notion during my lifetime.

The ethics of the SAT Optional movement could use further examination, but few of these colleges--all run by fine people--come out looking great when the competitive stakes are so high. Parents and students looking for answers are going to have to muddle through for a few more years until the situation deteriorates to a point where we do something drastic.

My wife, very active as an alumna interviewer of applicants to her alma mater, thinks we should switch to the computer matching used to place medical school graduates in residency programs. Wouldn’t that be fun? I can think of worse solutions.

By Washington Post editors  | July 31, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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How can you say the tests are meaningless and then worry about whether the reported scores are accurate? How accurate can meaningless numbers be?

Posted by: nslator | July 31, 2009 7:42 AM | Report abuse

I don't know what the solution is but we must continue to have a common standard that really shows a student's match with a college. GPA and class standing mean nothing. Non-academic community projects show something, I am not sure what. I still think your best chance of getting into a certain college is (1) need of the school - they need a quarterback or a tuba player (2) money - if you don't need student financial aid you get more points (3) family tradition in that school. One school admissions official once told me they don't look too much at SAT because it only represents one day out of a students life. This may be true, and maybe SAT or ACT is not really what tells us the true match that will help a student with success at a certain college. I am afraid I believe it is an important element in the equation.

Posted by: Rvbdata | July 31, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

When I took the SAT, it was 1600 points max. I was a product of public education, and my father was a coal miner who quit school at the age of fourteen to go to work to help feed his family. We lived in a three-room shack in a coal patch town. I took the test one time, no prep, and did very well. So I'm not following the conjecture that students in low income families are disadvantaged, save to the extent that their entire educational experience has been disadvantaged.

That said, a better test is definitely in order. It seems ludicrous to use the same test for liberal arts, engineering, political science, and agriculture.

We seem to be reluctant to set objective standards for academic achievement. In secondary education, we bemoan "teaching to the standardized test," yet it is precisely these standardized skills that children are expected to master during their tenure in school. In that case, I think we're just afraid to learn what a poor job we've done for those students.

For higher education, the topics are more specialized, but that doesn't mean we should avoid assessing aptitude and competence. The idea that we shouldn't test because some people don't like tests seems preposterous on its face.

If you don't like being held to objective standards, become a Wall Street banker: you can count on bi-partisan support for your failed career straight out of taxpayer coffers, no matter what a disaster you make of things.

Posted by: dgblues | July 31, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

As a physician who went through the match, your wife's idea is quite irrelevant to the SAT discussion.
In the rank system, students and institutions still play the admissions game, it's just the end that is different. Instead of having multiple acceptances and then picking one (often after re-visiting campuses in April), the student only learns of the highest ranked school at which he/she was accepted.
The match system was put into place to prevent students being pressured early in the year by schools trying to cherry-pick off desirable candidates (and pressuring students to immediately accept).
In fact, standardized testing abuse occurs just as much in a match as without it. Recently, dental residency programs have been demanding scores on Part I of the national licensing exam to use as a discriminator...and the exam has been trying to "fight back" by refusing to send official transcripts of scores (not thought to have much effect, since the programs are still requiring applicants to submit their scores). The exam authorities feel that the exam is not designed to be an applicant discriminator, but the programs say they need it to help identify students from different schools with different grading systems.
The match brings rationality (sometimes!) to the process by which students and schools/residencies marry up, but does absolutely nothing for the application process. The schools would continue to use whatever processes they wish to select students, and quantitative measures like testing might very well increase, since schools would now have to rank-order every applicant against every other.
Subsidiary admissions issues, like admitting athletes, minorities, legacies and tuba players, would become so problematic that schools would likely never agree to a rank system.

Posted by: hfmd | July 31, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

DG blues, I agree with you. I also was a product of public education with no money for any of the special test prep programs and took the test and did well. If not for doing well on the test - maybe I wouldn't have gotten the scholarships that I did which made college overall easier to pay for. I think far too often we decide that failure to succeed on the SAT or other standardized testing means the bar is set too high, when in fact, the bar is really just set too low in terms of academic achievement in school. It's really quite pathetic how little we push our students these days. When I was in school, we actually had to take practice versions of the SAT in class - this was public school, mind you, and then our parents got counseling based on those scores. There really should be no need for Kaplan etc if the school and parents are working together.

Posted by: vickistired | July 31, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps by not requiring SAT or ACT scores, the average scores reported by a college may indeed be lower than if they were required of all applicants.

My daughter attends a U.S. News top-50 liberal arts college that does not require standardized test scores from applicants who have particularly high GPA's (greater than 3.5) or graduated in the top ten percent of their senior class. Therefore, if some of these higher-achieving students did not submit their test scores, the average reported by the college will probably be lower than if all students had been required to submit them.

Posted by: leadhall | July 31, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I hate to tell you but money really doesn't play much of a factor in test prep. Yes, rich folks can spend lots of money to help their child do better on the test. Poor people on the other hand, can go to the public library and check out SAT test prep books for free and get the exact same benefit. My high school actually provided an after school SAT prep course for free....go figure.

In my opinion, the SAT (or any objective test) is needed to give an honest evaluation of a students ability. People will always complain about such a system...mainly because the RESULTS of such tests are not what they like.

Posted by: littleharbor | July 31, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

GPA and class rank mean almost nothing. You could be a star at a terrible school, or middle of the road at an excellent school.

From a college admissions standpoint, the star student at the bad school might look better on paper, until you factor in a standardized test like an SAT.

Posted by: squatty2 | July 31, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Squatty2 is exactly right. Comparing grades between schools, and even between teachers, are completely meaningless.

Something like the SAT Subject Tests and the AP tests, however, are much better indicators of what students have learned than the SAT general tests are.

Posted by: staticvars | July 31, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Like littleharbor, I think the SAT is a useful tool, and money is only a small part of the equation. I got a 1580 (on the 1600 scale) after using the library and spending about $20 at the bookstore. The highest score among my siblings, all of whom took test prep classes, was 200 points lower than me. The 1580 didn't come naturally either, but was the product of old-fashioned, self-imposed hard work -- lots of memorizing vocab words and taking practice tests.

My GPA and extracurriculars were also quite good, but I think the SAT helped set me apart in admissions and in scholarship competitions. I worked hard for my 1580 -- doing things that anyone could have done -- and I was glad it paid off.

Posted by: jonnydoe1234 | July 31, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I'm heartened to see that a few commenters have the courage to say what I would have said - I was a private school student (but a bad one for kids with behavior problems) took no prep class and did extremely well on the SAT. Without such a high score, I would most likely have not had nearly the opportunities that I ultimately did. My HS grades were mediocre (C+ average) mainly because I graduated in 3 years and I was bored with the material. My HS counted homework as part of your grade, and frankly, I saw no need to waste time on homework on material I had already mastered (I always received A's and high B's on tests); as such I ended up paying for it when the final grades came out. I think the SAT was a far better indicator of my potential and abilities than my HS grades were, and my subsequent college and employment experience has borne that out. In summary, as far as I am concerned, standardized tests DO deserve a place in college admissions.

Posted by: indy474 | July 31, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Glad to see the test-optional scam getting some well-deserved negative publicity. A couple of points:

1) Charles Murray has suggested replacing the SAT with the College Board's achievement tests, and makes an interesting case here:

2) You ignore the other motivation for test-optional policies: increasing what we're all supposed to call "diversity".

3) The SAT is not SUPPOSED to "reflect very well what students learn in high school". It is supposed to predict how students will do in college, and the latest research continues to suggest that it does a pretty good job of that:

Posted by: qaz1231 | July 31, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Muhlenburg is a great school, but even Muhlenburg wants the SAT if the student hopes for tuition assistance. I know this from personal experience (student's parent). I do agree with Jay about the IB and AP exams and their usefulness, and also that this won't happen any time soon.

In my opinion the SAT-optional movement is a full cousin of the drop-AP movement. It's another scam that lets admission's people use non-objective and non-quantifiable (and un-identifiable) measures on which to base decisions. In other words, without a low SAT score the schools are free to accept a rich and privileged though horrible student. And no one the wiser. Drop AP and there is no way to compare your school to others, and you can award your students with whatever (high) GPA you want (and they buy). Drop the SAT and the result is the same.

The elite do whatever they can to maintain their advantage. The SAT was created to keep the hoi polloi at bay. When we figured that one out, they started with test prep that others couldn't get. That one was learned, so AP was cranked in. Now, thanks to Jay (kudos!), many thousands more students take AP and IB than before. Another advantage lost to the elite. So they stop taking AP - ostensibly to escape the bondage the standard curriculum and exams imply, but really so that AP scores from others no longer count - and now the SAT becomes optional, so that the higher scores form the non-elite no longer matter either.
It's just one scam after another. Those who have are determined to retain their advantage, and will do whatever is necessary to do so.

Not that I'm bitter or anything - just frustrated with people who wave the flag of a meritocracy while quietly rigging the game so that only they can demonstrate merit.

Posted by: LoveIB | July 31, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I think you give the test-prep tutors way too much credit. I always found the fake test questions prepared by the test-prep companies to be ambiguous and confusing, which scared me, whereas the actual SAT and LSAT questions were crystal clear with only one logical answer. I always scored much better on the actual tests than on the fake tests, and for that reason I've always doubted the test-prep companies' claims.

Posted by: juliaandrews | July 31, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Great comments. I particularly appreciate that indepth analysis of the residency match day system. I too for a long time thought that high school GPA was not a very useful measure, but the data indicate that it is predicts first year college performance very nearly as well as the SAT. More surprising, researchers who have looked specifically at African American students have found their high school GPAs to be a BETTER predictor of first year college performance than their SAT scores.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 31, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

A proposal for selective admissions:

1. Let SAT performance set the lower bound for consideration. Institutions could choose to be honest with themselves and allow the lower bound to be determined by the last few years of experience with their students: including that surprisingly successful legacy or athlete or disadvantaged background or full-pay student who was admitted with pretty soft SAT scores but nevertheless did fine.

2. If the applicant pool above the lower bound is larger than you need (probably always the case at a selective institution), randomly select X number of applicants in that pool for close reading of the applications. Based on reading, choose to interview a suitable subset. Do not allow readers or interviewers to know the SAT scores.

3. Make offers based on interviews.

This is a fair way to recognize the only proper value of the SAT or ACT tests: to establish a basic competency to succeed in college. Otherwise, a focus on standardized testing screws up admissions and society.

Posted by: etysn | July 31, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

From my experience, the SAT tests the following: A)vocabulary, B)reading speed, c)arithmetic skills, and d)nerves. There is *some* correlation between doing well on the test and doing well in college, but it isn't extremely strong. I know people who did very well on the SAT and then almost flunked out of college because they had no study skills and had never had to work hard in high school. I know people who did terribly on the SAT and graduated at the top of their classes. The problem is that if you are a slow reader or your nerves are bad, you are going to do very badly on this exam, and there isn't anything you can do about it. And neither of these factors reveals anything about a student's potential to succeed in college.

Posted by: floof | July 31, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Jay Mathews wrote: "researchers who have looked specifically at African American students have found their high school GPAs to be a BETTER predictor of first year college performance than their SAT scores."

Can you provide a citation for this claim?

According to the College Board:

the new SATW is a better predictor of first-year college grades than HSGPA for everyone except WHITES.

Regardless, the question is not whether to use GPA or SAT; one should use both if they are both valid predictors. And the SAT is a valid predictor for blacks as well as whites:

(if anything the SAT may over-predict black success, precisely what one would expect if AA were pushing blacks into colleges above their ability level).

Posted by: qaz1231 | July 31, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"I too for a long time thought that high school GPA was not a very useful measure, but the data indicate that it is predicts first year college performance very nearly as well as the SAT."

I have never seen actual data that shows that. If it did exist, one might hypothesize that on average it may be okay- as many schools are average, as are many students, but it tends to be worst for people coming from schools that are either very good or very bad.

Posted by: staticvars | July 31, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I've never seen data that concludes SAT prep classes actually materially improve scores. If anything, over the years, the SAT people have said that prep classes are a waste of money in almost all cases.

No test of any kind is ever "perfect." The question to be answered is whether the test in whatever form it is is the best tool out there for the purpose intended. The SAT has shown that it is.

There will always be a loud minority who claim the SAT has this flaw or that one, and it hurts this group or that one. If that minority had its way with the SAT, the next goal would be to eliminate testing in college/university classes (oh, that's right: that is already true in some settings).

I hope that crowd is treated by Doctors who avoided SAT and got pass/fail medical degrees.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | July 31, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I remember seeing two different research papers that noted high school GPA results were the better predictor of college success for African American students. One I don't remember the authors. The other was co-authored by Saul Geiser, who is the great guru of testing results for the University of California system. If you google him I think the paper will pop up. Someone who tried this said they found a paper dated 2001 that looked like the right one.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 31, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

To Jay Mathews:

Thanks, Geiser's name was all I needed. I can't access the most relevant-sounding paper without paying for it, but in this recent article:

he seems to 1) accept that the SATW does a good job of predicting success independent of HSGPA and 2) shares Murray's view that the College Board achievement tests are better, since they are at least as predictive as the SATW and can't be gamed by rich kids going to test-prep classes.

It all comes down to this: colleges want metrics of IQ and conscientiousness, because that's what will dominate academic success. The SAT's a strong predictor of IQ, but weak of conscientiousness, whereas something closer to the reverse is true of HSGPA. You can drop the SAT for social reasons if you want, but something has to pick up the IQ-measuring slack. Achievement tests may well be an excellent substitute.

Posted by: qaz1231 | July 31, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Also to Jay Mathews:

that article I attempted to link earlier, the Psychological Science paper "Individual Differences in Course Choice Result in Underestimation of the Validity of College Admissions Systems", Berry and Sackett 2009, uses a very large dataset to demonstrate that the SAT and HSGPA are strong and partially independent predictors of not only first-year but *cumulative* college success (they adjusted college gpa for course difficulty). It would be foolish to throw out the SAT before we are sure that we have an adequate replacement.

Posted by: qaz1231 | July 31, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Once more, to Jay Mathews:

I tracked down what seems like the relevant paper by Geiser:

which finds exactly the OPPOSITE of what you said: the SAT predicts college GPA better than HSGPA for blacks, but worse for whites (it also slightly overpredicts for blacks, underpredicts for whites). If you have data that contradicts this please provide a link.

Posted by: qaz1231 | July 31, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

One of the thorny issues in debating the use of SATs and other tests is the vastly different perspectives of two groups of folks: those who do well on tests and those who feel they don't. Those who have done well, feel that the tests have validated their skills, intelligence, acquired knowledge (take your pick) and feel cheated by critics contending that the tests are meaningless. Moreover, you can apply the same $$ argument here as with sports. Yes, you won the US Open, Wimbledon, Olympics, etc. but you had the benefit of the best (most expensive) coaches; therefore, the legitimacy of your achievements are really in question.

Those who cite a gap (real or imagined) between their test scores and their years of scholastic success cannot fathom that these infernal exams can be legitimate. They bristle at the implicit suggestion that their other achievements are somehow invalidated by a test score.

There are, sadly, lots of false negatives, lots of ways for bright and academically talented students to underperform. Stress alone wipes out a lot of otherwise good scores. As reported in Wednesday's New York Times."“ neuroscientists say that the most perceptive, observant brain on earth will not pick up subtle clues if it is overwhelmed by stress. "

As I see it, both perspectives are true. A student who has worked hard and done well on an SAT, ACT or other exam should feel proud of her achievement. There are no false positives on standardized tests; one can not guess one's way to a stellar score. On the flip side, a poor score does not say that he cannot do well, only that he hasn't. The problem then, as Stephen Jay Gould laid out so well in "The Mismeasure of Man," is of using such exams as limits.
"Scored under (insert cut-off number here)?
"Then I regret to inform you that you clearly are not (insert selective college name) material."

It's disappointing that some colleges, as the old saying goes, are trying to have their cake and eat it too. As Jay points out, Sarah Lawrence at least is a bit more courageous, willing to take its lumps for its convictions. The same, of course, is true for those colleges that are not only test-score optional but that will not accept standardized test scores at all.

I suspect that the rest of us are simply hoping for a test that has no false negatives.

Ned Johnson
co-author: "Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed"

Posted by: nedjohnson-prepmatters | July 31, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Jay seems to think that being white and having money is the root of all evil and if ONLY we could just make it so that every poor minority child didn't have to take those evil SAT exams that the rich white kids have prep for, educational justice will be served.

I am so sick and tired of this Liberal "Progressive" thinking that is making the U.S. dumber than dirt.

Posted by: lisamc31 | August 1, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

I don't agree that HSGPA is an invalid measure, not by any means, but I do think it should be balanced by other objective measures such as the SAT/ACT - e.g. someone who works very hard [or has parents or other relatives who help with homework and essays] but simply isn't that bright or doesn't have all that much intellectual potential can game that system fairly easily in HS and college admissions. On an objective test it's much more difficult to skew the results. I have seen a number of people with very high GPAs and even those who attained membership to the National Honor Society who simply learned how to game that system. Susie is always on time for class, completes all of her homework assignments, and sits in the front row; her low or middling test results are an anomaly because of "stress". However, Susie has no higher intellect than anyone else, she's just a teacher's pet. HS and mediocre college classes tend to reward Susie vs. Peter, who rarely attends class or completes homework but routinely aces tests. IQ and potential are important. I want new thinkers with new ideas, not just people who do the same thing in the same old way. Showing up is important, but so is the ability to think beyond just what has been taught.

Posted by: indy474 | August 1, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Despite multiple postings to the contrary, high school GPA remains a more accurate predictor of first year college grades than any portion of the SAT or any combination of test scores.

Who says so? The College Board, the test's sponsor repeatedly admits that grades are better predictors than its test. For example, Table 5 of College Board Research Report 2008-5, "Validity of the SAT for Predicting First Year Grades," available for free online -- -- demonstrates this point

Yes, there can be tremendous variation in high school grading systems. Even within the same school, one student may take very rigorous classes while another enrolls in "gut" courses. Yes, despite these vagaries (and the reality of grade inflation) high school grades still predict better than does the SAT (or ACT).

That should tell you something about the value of these standardized exams.The 820+ colleges and universities which do not require applicants to submit SAT/ACT results before admissions decisions are made ( recognize that test scores do not measure merit, despite the mythology pitched by their promoters.

Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

Posted by: FairTest | August 1, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

FairTest makes the sort of deceptive post I'd expect from them. The question isn't whether HSGPA predicts college success better than the SAT (it does, but only *very* slightly, and not for all subgroups, such as blacks), but whether the SAT provides INDEPENDENT predictive validity over and above HSGPA, and every study I've cited, every study I've seen, and the very study that FairTest linked, all say that it does.

Posted by: qaz1231 | August 1, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Part of the brouhaha about standardized test results, the SAT in particular, is driven by the diversity mania. Because test scores do not yield the "proper" percentages by race/ethnicity, either there must be something wrong with the test or some groups/kids are less qualified. It's harder to pretend that everyone is equally talented/qualified in the face of very different scores.

Posted by: momof4md | August 3, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

For anyone that can access the link qaz1231 provided for the article from Psychological Science, give it a read. Caveat: It is funded by the College Board. Authors found that SAT and HSGPA account for over half of what the authors define as academic success (based not on FYCGPA but individual course grades). HSGPA is a slightly better metric but both in combination are better than either alone. ICG's allow the authors (they believe) fairer comparisons between students than CGPA. I support Fair Test but I do agree with qaz1231 that FT really doesn't give the SAT its due (even though I have also written op-eds suggesting, a la Murray, that we would be better off going to standardized subject tests). QAZ1231 thanks for the cite- I'm also a member of Association for Psychological Science and get the journal regularly but my hard copy takes forever to get across the pond.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | August 3, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

patrickmattimore1: You're very welcome; I try to always use statistics instead of anecdotes, but sometimes I forget that not everyone has journal access. I presumed Jay Mathews, at least, could read Psych Sci.

As far as that SAT vs Achievement tests, I don't see why the latter would make the FairTest folks happy. The Achievement tests may be marginally better predictors than the SAT, but they're 1) probably more difficult to evaluate correctly due to the variety of material across tests, 2) they may provide even more predictiveness IN COMBINATION with the SAT, and 3) they're going to show essentially the same black-white gap as the SAT. They also overpredict collegiate success for blacks (but not whites), just like the SAT and HSGPA. The obvious explanation for this would seem to be that affirmative action is already pushing blacks into colleges beyond their ability level, and the last thing we need is another scheme to push that process even further (which dropping the SAT would be).

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Posted by: qaz1231 | August 3, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse


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Posted by: morse99 | August 3, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

1. SAT Subject tests wouldn't make the Fair Test folks happy either. You are certainly correct about that. But I think it is fairer to test material that would be appropriate for all hs students to have learned, rather than testing "aptitude" or "intelligence." With enough SAT Subject tests (Murray, I think, recommended 5) (or a better mousetrap, if possible) the evaluation difficulties virtually disappear.
2. SAT Subject tests have about the same predictive validity as SAT Reasoning test but the two in combination with HSGPA add virtually nothing to what you get with HSGPA and one or the other. (see College Board website).
3. The incredible element of the Psychological Science journal article that you cited is that the authors suggest that looking at individual course grades (which present a better comparison among students than mean FYCGPA) reveals that SAT and HSGPA account for way more of the variance in college academic performance than has been previously thought. If colleges adopt the authors logic, SATs will once again be front and center in admissions. I would also hope that the authors would do a follow-up looking at SAT Subject tests.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | August 4, 2009 3:55 AM | Report abuse

patrickmattimore1: I think we are in broad agreement. As to your point 2, the last study I linked reported that overall the SAT and Achievement tests added ~1% to each other's predictive value. Whether that is "virtually nothing" or statistically significant I don't know, but it isn't much; however in practice, in real world admissions, where some students may not have taken 5(!) subject tests, and they may have taken non-g-loaded tests like Spanish, I suspect the SAT will add real value.

From the perspective of an admissions board member, one score on a standard test is a certainly a lot easier to interpet and compare than multiple numbers on widely varying tests.

And consider the perspective of a high school student: is it a good idea to make him/her go to the time, expense, and stress of taking 5 tests, when 1 (the SAT) is almost as good at predicting college success?

Murray's argument for switching to the Subject tests and dropping the SAT is essentially a social one, and while the for-appearances-sake points he makes may have some merit, one ought to consider the practical hassles as well before deciding to drop the SAT.

Posted by: qaz1231 | August 4, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I would agree that we are in broad general agreement. Certainly, I prefer the SAT Reasoning test to no test but I do think Murray's social arguments are persuasive. Five subject tests would be five hours (the current SAT Reasoning test is 3:45). I don't think the advantage of one number (it's actually two) on the SAT I is that big a deal. In fact, I think it is the simplicity of that (those) number(s) which make(s) the SAT such a target. With a bunch of standardized subject test scores, you get a wider profile. You also create a subject test performance standard for high schools that is IMHO fairer. I've no evidence to support this but I think that as more and more students took subject tests (not necessarily the current SAT Subject tests), teachers would aim their courses more nearly at what is being tested. Ultimately, though, you would probably get a cream rising to the top scenario that would be nearly identical to what is already happening. Again, the SAT Subject tests may not be the best subject tests to use. Geiser has recommended AP's.
The most competitive schools are already looking at 3 SAT Subject tests in addition to the SAT or ACT and usually a host of AP scores as well. It's pretty easy to eyeball a string of numbers and get a pretty good idea what type of kid you are looking at. Also, the admissions' depts. can make distinctions in the types of tests kids are taking and could certainly require a base of Subject exams (say an English, math, social science, foreign language, and optional).
Unfortunately (I believe) the Univ. of Ca. subscribed to a view similar to yours in voting to abolish the SAT Subject test requirement beginning, with the graduating hs class of 2012(?). Essentially, UC felt they would get many more non-Asian minority applicants if they eliminated the Subject test requirement. Seems dumb to me to water down admissions since none of these newly "eligible for review" applicants stands a chance of getting into the more competitive UC schools and the ones who get into UC Riverside and UC Merced will have more attractive California State University options available locally.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | August 4, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

patrickmattimore1: Good points. I agree that the Subject tests are more likely to have the teaching incentives aligned appropriately. I still believe the SAT has a role as a convenient, standardized measure of IQ. And without having followed the California situation closely, I will say that it's a shame when school boards base their decisions not on what the science says are the best tests to use, but on what will get them the particular racial mix of students their political dogma prefers. Everybody wins when people are directed towards paths where they can best succeed. Smart, self-disciplined people will benefit most from college. But one can be successful in life without using anything one was supposed to learn in college. Sales and the arts, I'd bet, are two professions where a 4-year degree adds little of practical value, and I'd imagine that the SAT (or Subject tests, or HSGPA) is a fairly poor predictor of success in those fields. We ought to have more testing, not less, and for more diverse skills and personality traits than IQ and self-discipline. And we ought to use the results to direct people towards the professions or specialized training programs their abilities are best aligned with, not try to shove everybody into 4-yr colleges. Anyway, good discussion. I hope Jay is reading it!

Posted by: qaz1231 | August 4, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

qaz1231 wrote:
"And without having followed the California situation closely, I will say that it's a shame when school boards base their decisions not on what the science says are the best tests to use, but on what will get them the particular racial mix of students their political dogma prefers."

In Ca. the decision to drop the SAT Subject tests was made by UC's President Mark Yudof based on a recommendation from the faculty advisory committee.
UC admissions is a complex picture in that there are really two mandates- get the most academically qualified kids AND a class representative of the state's diverse population. Prop 209 essentially ordered UC to forego the latter but UC has been looking for ways around that mandate ever since Prop 209 became law in the mid 1990s.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | August 5, 2009 2:10 AM | Report abuse

A test prep course might be able to raise someone from 800 M+V to 1000, but I highly doubt that it could very many from 1400 to 1600. And THAT's the 200 points that would actually make a difference between getting in to a top school and settling for one's "safety"...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 6, 2009 9:26 PM | Report abuse

The SAT does not predict college success. Classroom performance in high school is the best predictor of success in college. Albeit, all grades of "A" are not equal - as high school gradng systems and rigor greatly vary. This is certainly why many schools still use standardized testing to level the playing field (to some degree). Plus, increase your colleges average SAT's and you can increase your US News rankings.

But with as much emphasis and attention that the SAT's receive - What does SAT stand for? HHHmmmm, it keeps on changing. In fact, it doesn't stand for anything. I don't think CollegeBoard is even sure what exactly it measures. It's just a test designed to stress out high school students.

Posted by: frosty3 | August 6, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

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