It doesn't test for success

  By Joanne V. Creighton, JOANNE V. CREIGHTON is president of Mount Holyoke
 March 13, 2006

 BY NOW, MOST OF the country has heard of the College Board's gaffe in
reporting erroneous SAT scores for about 4,000 college-bound students. A
single case in which a college does not accept a qualified student because
his or her SAT scores are erroneously reported is clearly an injustice. The
potential for 4,000 such cases is a disaster that should prompt all
colleges, universities, students and their families to ask serious
questions about a college placement system that, through a single
computational error, can irrevocably alter a student's educational

 High-stakes standardized tests such as the SAT have assumed a central role
in the admissions process disproportionate to their value. This test falls
far short of predicting academic or career potential or a host of important
aptitudes, such as curiosity, motivation, persistence, leadership,
creativity, civic engagement and social conscience.

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  Think of all the high school students you've ever known, and then think
of all the colleges and universities you've heard of. Now try to come up
with a set of questions that would tell you how each person would do in his
or her postsecondary education.

 The SAT might have made sense when it was developed in the 1920s, when
higher education was an elitist proposition and the college admission
pipeline led a relatively homogeneous population of young adults into a
similarly uni-dimensional set of colleges and universities. But U.S.
secondary education today is a multilingual, multiethnic, socioeconomically
diverse enterprise, and so too are the 3,000-odd colleges and universities
to which high school students aspire.

 It seems self-evident that a one-size-fits-all test could not adequately
assess the diverse populations of students and schools that make up the
U.S. educational landscape. In fact, one need only visit many of our
nation's most prestigious institutions to see the cumulative effect of
reliance on the SAT: campuses that are populated predominately by whites,
Asians and the rich. Even the wealthiest universities, many of which waive
tuition for poorer students, end up educating an embarrassingly small
number of students from the lower fifth, economically, of the U.S.
population. This is not the meritocracy the SAT's early proponents had in

 Nicholas Lemann wrote in "The Big Test" about how the SAT's creator, Carl
Brigham, who had only egalitarian instincts, eventually came to reject his
own theories and what he called "one of the most glorious fallacies in the
history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence
purely and simply without regard to training or school. The test scores
very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background,
familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant."

 Many colleges and universities  including mine, Mount Holyoke  have
deep-sixed the SAT for precisely these reasons. We found that reliance on
the SAT would lead us to reject students who deserved to be admitted based
on their previous accomplishments and who would succeed at our schools.

 To be sure, such a policy change flies in the face of another pernicious
numbers game, that of the annual college rankings manufactured by U.S. News
& World Report, which relies heavily on SAT scores and other "input"
measures (acceptance rate, money spent per student, alumni giving) to
supposedly rank institutions for educational quality. Like the SAT, this
rankings game is educationally and morally suspect.

 In 2001, Mount Holyoke made the SAT optional for admission. We have been
studying the effects of that policy  with a grant from the Mellon
Foundation  and the results are striking. So far, we have found no
meaningful difference in academic performance between students who did not
submit scores and those who did. The study shows a one-tenth of a point
difference between the aggregate grade point averages of submitters and
non-submitters, and this difference is mitigated the further along the
student is in her college career.

 Translation: We don't need the SAT in order to predict academic
performance in college. A student's high school curriculum and performance,
personal essays, interviews, teachers' recommendations and other measures
give a more holistic view of achievement, potential and fit for a
particular institution.

 Another early result from the study confirms what has been widely assumed:
As families' income levels rise, so too does the likelihood that the
student has had the advantage of SAT training classes or special tutoring.
More than two-thirds of prospective Mount Holyoke students from
higher-income families took an SAT preparation course, and one in three had
private tutoring. If high test scores are for sale, how fair an instrument
is the SAT?

 Findings like those from our Mellon study are a blow to the test's
credibility. But perhaps it will take a second stake in the SAT's heart
before students and educators everywhere question the role of this American
institution. Grading errors are bound to happen over the course of anyone's
education. It's when a single grading error could potentially keep 4,000
high school students from their choice of college that the SAT's harmful
effects become all too clear.

Norman A. Stahl
Professor and Chair
Literacy Education
GA 147
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115

Phone: (815) 753-9032
FAX:   (815) 753-8563
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