Sidetracked by SATs
This op-ed by President Joanne Creighton appeared
in the January 3 issue of the Washington Post.
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
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 emails 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 numbersannual college
rankingsthat 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 studentsif, 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
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 universityany more
than the quality of a magazinecan 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.
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.