SAT Scrutinized and Value Debated

Posted in the Alumnae Quarterly - Spring 2000
By Kevin McCaffrey

Amid mounting questions nationally regarding the utility and fairness of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Mount Holyoke is in the midst of a community-wide discussion about the role of the SAT in the College's admission process.

That conversation started last fall as the faculty advisory committee on admissions and financial aid began examining current admission practices in light of the College's mission and educational philosophy. After substantial debate at the February and March faculty meetings, the faculty endorsed a recommendation by that committee to make submission of SAT scores optional for applicants to the College. Then, at its March meeting, the College's Board of Trustees began a consideration of the proposed change.

The SAT, developed by the 100-year-old nonprofit College Board, is a standardized test for high school students that seeks to measure their potential for success in college. Educators hold a wide range of opinions about the fairness and predictive validity of the SAT. A number of studies have pointed to possible cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, and class biases in the SAT. The growing availability of for-profit services to prepare students for the SAT has also raised questions about whether family income plays an unfair advantage in testing.

In the statement trustees issued after their meeting, chair Eleanor Graham Claus ’55 notes that "The board was pleased that the administration and faculty are grappling with this important educational matter and soliciting opinion widely throughout the community.... Given the complexity of this matter and its many ramifications for the College, the board recommends that before instituting any change in policy, the College explore further options to enhance educationally productive links between the admission selection process and the College's values and mission."

According to the committee's report, SAT scores at Mount Holyoke carry about 10 percent of the weight in admission decisions. The application process is thorough and individualized. Among its many components are a comprehensive review of each student's high school record within the context of data related to her school's quality, as well as rigorous writing requirements (several essays and a graded paper). The committee also found that the test's reliability to predict first-year grade point average and overall performance is relatively weak. It is far outweighed by the predictive validity of other measures, such as high school records and grade point average.

"We believe that the SAT score, at best, is a measure of a narrow set of verbal and mathematical abilities," states the report, which was prepared by an nine-person committee of faculty members, students, and administrators. "The test does not measure the range of intellectual and emotional qualities that our own educational environment requires and attempts to nourish."

"In recent years, many in higher education have begun to question seriously both the effectiveness of the SAT and the unwarranted importance this test has gained in influencing the academic choices open to many students, " says Dean of Enrollment Jane Brown, who served on the committee. "Mount Holyoke is committed to reviewing each applicant based on the totality of her academic and personal achievement and future potential. It is time for academic institutions to reject the all-too-pervasive view that the SAT effectively measures intelligence or potential for future success."

At Mount Holyoke and other campuses throughout the nation, discussion of the value of standardized tests has been kicked into high gear following publication of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann.

Both President Joanne V. Creighton and Ford Foundation Professor of History Joseph J. Ellis have written reviews of this landmark book, which criticizes the SAT. Creighton, who has advocated strongly for continued commitment to affirmative action among top schools, notes in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education that SAT scores are holding back many applicants who are set to succeed in highly competitive academic environments.

"The problem," Creighton writes, "is not with affirmative action, but with the SAT itself.... The Big Test exposes the profound and largely deleterious impact this test has had on American culture and education. We in colleges and universities must choose our applicants with a less blunt instrument of selection."

And Ellis writes in the Chicago Tribune, "[One] irony is that American higher education, which is the most decentralized and diverse system in the industrialized world, has adopted a centralized and standardized measure of success that even its most ardent defenders acknowledge to be a narrow segment of the intellectual spectrum. It is as if the National Basketball Association teams picked players solely on their ability to make free-throws."

The advisory committee on admissions and financial aid is chaired by Sandra Lawrence, associate professor and chair of psychology and education. The Board of Trustees will look at more material about the SAT and the Mount Holyoke admission process at its May meeting.