Sidetracked by SATS

This Op-ed ran in the Washington Post on Wednesday, January 3, 2001.

Across the nation, eager high school seniors are now struggling to put the finishing touches on applications to colleges and universities. What institutions students choose and whether those schools in turn choose them could be life-defining decisions. Yet too often those decisions are influenced by the misleading ways in which both students and institutions are reduced to numbers by the SAT and annual college rankings.

SAT scores have assumed a central role in the admissions process disproportional to their value. While this test has some ability to predict student performance in the first year of college, it falls far short of predicting overall academic or career success and a host of other aptitudes that educators and society value, such as intellectual curiosity, motivation, persistence, leadership, creativity, civic engagement and social conscience.

Since Mount Holyoke's announcement in June that we are making submission of SAT scores optional for a research period of five years, we have been inundated by e-mails and letters from high school guidance counselors, principals and headmasters applauding our decision and expressing consternation over the misguided importance this test has assumed. They want their students to focus on educationally productive activities, not on test-prep skills, and so do we.

Casting a skeptical eye on the SAT and refusing to reduce a student to a number is a step in the right direction. Now colleges and universities must refuse to reduce ourselves to numbers as well. The SAT has developed a strange relationship with another set of numbers -- annual college rankings -- that are even more specious.

The average SAT score of an institution's incoming class influences how that school does in college rankings, such as those manufactured annually by U.S. News & World Report magazine. Admission officers at many leading colleges and universities often reject or discount students who may be well qualified but whose SAT scores will "hurt" that institution's SAT average in the rankings. At the same time, there is also a widely held belief among high school guidance counselors that some selective schools are cagily using early decision, early action and wait lists to manipulate their acceptance rates and yields to improve their performance.

First students and then colleges themselves are caught in a perniciously reductive numbers game, which is intensified to a fever pitch as students compete to get into top schools and as top schools compete for students and prestige. On the one hand, a thriving and downright exploitative test-prep business has developed around the frenzied preoccupation with testing among many high school students -- if, that is, their parents have the money to invest in these services.

On the other hand, college administrators are preoccupied with ways to boost their own scores in U.S. News and other annual rankings and guidebooks, many of which are modeled or based on the approach taken by that magazine. The flawed methodology and rationale, the commercial motivations and the widespread influence of the U.S. News rankings have had a far more negative effect on higher education than have standardized tests.

According to a recent Washington Monthly cover story, U.S. News found its own methodology without "any defensible empirical or theoretical basis" in an internal study in 1997. Gerhard Casper, then president of Stanford, wrote to the editor of U.S. News in 1996: "I am extremely skeptical that the quality of a university -- any more than the quality of a magazine -- can be measured statistically. However, even if it can, the producers of the U.S. News rankings remain far from discovering the method."

Further, in its focus on input measures (SAT scores, rank in class, acceptance rate, money spent per student) rather than on the educational growth of students, U.S. News skirts the issue of how effective colleges are in actually teaching students.

Not only is the U.S. News methodology highly questionable, the magazine tinkers with aspects of its ranking formulas from year to year with the result, if not the intent, that colleges jump from place to place on an annual basis. It's absurd to think that academic excellence could rise and fall precipitously year to year and that you could rank-order institutions so precisely.

Even so, colleges and universities themselves often buy into this race and give the rankings more lip service than they deserve. It is time for leaders in higher education to speak out against a ranking system that we know lacks credibility and validity.

Joanne V. Creighton is the president of Mount Holyoke College.