Should colleges be dumping the SAT?

CNN’s Stephen Burd and Joanne Zalatoris have an interesting analysis of a decision by George Washington University (among others) to do away with the requirement for applicants to provide their SAT or ACT scores as part of the college admissions process. Is this a good idea and will it improve the general pool of students seeking degrees from some of the nations most prestigious institutions? The authors see some things to admire, but also some reasons to questions the motives behind such a move. But even the items in the “plus column” here strike me as a bit dubious.

First, they praise the idea that allowing high school students to skip over their test scores might widen the pool.

Laurie Koehler, senior associate provost for enrollment management at GW, said in the university’s news release that going test-optional “will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities.”

Adopting a test-optional admissions policy can be a positive move for colleges that wish to expand educational opportunity to more diverse populations.

There are all sorts of buzzwords packed into those two sentences and it doesn’t take much imagination to translate them. The schools aren’t getting enough minority students to demonstrate their “diversity” because not enough of them are knocking out the top scores on the SAT exam. To defend this aspect of the decision they fall back on the claim that the tests themselves are prejudiced because the questions may unintentionally contain cultural biases.

There was a time when some tests, most notably IQ exams, had bias built into them based on at least economic background. (A factor which undeniably translates into racial background because of demographics, while not being directly racially related.) Examples included questions such as asking the participant to select the word which best completes a phrase such as, Cup and BLANK. The correct answer was “saucer” but that’s a somewhat antiquated (or at least highbrow) bit of imagery. How many people – particularly in low income or blue collar households – still put a saucer under their cup of coffee every morning? Plenty of those folks selected “spoon” for the answer and were given a lower score.

But the SAT exam can’t still be in that category to any significant extent. (Particularly the math section.) The authors of the opinion piece bring up another, somewhat darker possibility as to how universities would benefit from eliminating the test score requirement. More applicants equal more rejections which means you look more exclusive.

Adopting a test-optional policy can give institutions a boost in the all-important college rankings game.

For example, freeing prospective students from having to provide SAT and ACT scores can boost the number of students who apply to the institution. Students who may have thought their test scores precluded them from even being considered can now apply without having to worry about including them in their applications. And for colleges, more applicants means more students that they can reject, which lowers their acceptance rate and raises the institution’s perceived selectivity.

Wow. You’d have to be pretty cynical to think a college would sink to such a level. Fortunately, I’ve yet to run low on cynicism.

Are there any dangers to not asking for test scores? Well, you might wind up getting somebody like Melissa Mejia. The 18 year old Queens resident admirably went to the New York Post this week and asked a very awkward question about her school. Why did you let me graduate when I didn’t even show up for a required course and never took the final exam?

I don’t like receiving what I would call a handout, but that’s what happened. New York City gave me a ­diploma I didn’t deserve. It may seem odd that I’m speaking up, but it’s only because I’m fully aware I didn’t deserve to pass a course that allowed me to graduate…

“Good afternoon Mr. Ortiz, it’s Melissa Mejia. I never got contacted to take the final, I would like to know what’s going on. I need my Government credit to graduate.”

He replied: “Melissa you passed Government. I thought your teacher called you. She gave you a 65. Congrats!”

I admire young Miss Mejia for having the character to stand up and ask the question. Hopefully she’ll get back on the educational track and bring herself up to speed even though her school completely failed her. But what about all the other students who are given a pass by school administrators who care more about their rankings than the kids and never say anything? Will colleges be taking more of them, even if they are doomed to fail once they arrive at college?

The testing system is far from perfect. People who can afford tutors and have parents willing to drive them harder will do better. Having instructors “teach to the test” is hardly ideal. And some students may do very well in oral exams or writing essays but just choke under the pressure of a massive, multiple choice exam. But we also don’t have many options to replace them. If colleges start abandoning these test scores in droves we may as well just call the college admission process a beauty pageant.

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