In Defense of the SAT

Well, all you prospective class of 2013ers without a perfect 2400 SAT score, rejoice! Dean William Fitzsimmons of Harvard University Admissions and Financial Aid has said that Harvard may one day make the SAT and other standardized testing optional. Fitzsimmons’s comments came simultaneously with a report he helped compose from the National Association for College Admission Counseling that calls for a de-emphasis of standardized testing in the college application process. The comments also come on the heels of announcements by both Wake Forest University and Smith College that they would make the SAT optional for their applicants. Are the days of the SAT Reasoning Test, whose roots in American culture extend as far back as the 1920s, numbered?

I certainly hope not. While many of NACAC’s criticisms of the SAT are valid, and while the SAT remains far from a flawless indicator or predictor of academic aptitude, moving toward an admission process that lacks standardized testing is an irrational and dangerous step. The growing number of applicants for whom English is not a first language, the trend toward increasing applicant socioeconomic diversity, and the hyper-competitiveness of the current application process all emphasize the necessity—not the irrelevancy, as NACAC suggests—of standardized testing in the college admission process.

An inevitable effect of globalization is the increasingly international makeup of universities. NACAC rightly points out that “demographic changes in the U.S. are likely to result in greater numbers of English-as-a-second-language students seeking admission to college.” That would make “predicting first-year grades for such students extremely difficult.” NACAC further argues that such “demographic changes” cast doubt on the validity of the SAT as a predictor of the success of a college first-year.

But as an international student myself, I would argue the contrary. It is a fact that there is—and will continue to be—a rise in the number of applicants who are still developing their English skills. But rather than putting these students at a disadvantage, the SAT offers them the opportunity to show just how much English they have learned in their limited exposure to the language. This in turn suggests their academic aptitude and predicts their ability to learn quickly at an American university. The role of the SAT as a standardized form of assessment that holds everyone—native English speaker or not—to a single academic bar becomes even more important because of the increasing linguistic diversity of applicants.

Another criticism of the SAT that NACAC rightly advances—and also one of the mass media’s favorite quotations from the report—is that SAT “test scores appear to calcify differences based on class, race/ethnicity, and parental educational attainment.” There is a correlation, they argue, between average test scores and annual income among takers of the SAT. NACAC acknowledges that it may be “confusing causation with correlation” by faulting the SAT for this clear relationship between economic status and test performance, but simply acknowledging this fallacy does not excuse it. Of course, as NACAC argues, the exposure of higher-income students to SAT test preparation gives them an unfair advantage, but it is grave oversimplification of a sorry economic reality to claim that the flaws inherent in the SAT are to blame. NACAC’s facile “solution” to this economic bias ingrained in society is to de-emphasize the SAT and to weigh high school GPA and extracurricular activities more heavily. This does not fix the problem, it only ignores it. Allotting a greater role to GPA in the admission process incorrectly assumes that rich students receive tutoring for the SAT but not for their high school classes and tests. If anything, the SAT acts as a great equalizer, offering applicants a chance to rise above economic and social prejudices by granting them at least a somewhat level playing field outside the biases of their educational, social, and economic communities.

Despite its many flaws, the SAT remains an indispensable part of the college admission process. It helps to check the rampant grade inflation that seems to be plaguing high schools across the country. Why should an admission officer simply take the word of a teacher that a student deserves an A? NACAC is right in calling for a more comprehensive approach in order to compensate for inevitable inaccuracies in SAT scores at a time when college admission is becoming increasingly competitive. That is why Columbia, in its application, laudably asks for our standardized test scores but also asks about the books we read, the films we watch, and the ways in which we spend our summers. Columbia’s application allows admissions officers to assess the applicant as an individual with a personality and with academic passions rather than as a composite of numbers, scores, and extracurricular leadership positions.

Schools that are struggling with over-emphasis on the SAT should consider moving away from the sadly perfunctory Common Application and toward the more holistic Columbian approach to admission. The answer of how to deal with college admission given the flaws in the SAT is not to give up on standardized tests entirely—rather, colleges must develop newer, more comprehensive applications that allow candidates to showcase, through the SAT as well as through other means, the full range of their talents.

The author is a Columbia College first-year.

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