Why Your College Should Dump the SAT

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 28, 2014

The College Board recently announced that it would revamp the SAT to what the organization’s president, David Coleman, said "mirrors the work students will do in college." Some of those changes include a vocabulary section that no longer focuses on obscure words and a math section that drills deeper into algebra. Unfortunately, the new test still does not deal with the SAT’s real problem: It is inherently biased against women, the poor, minorities, and older students. Revamping is not enough. It’s time to bury the SAT.

William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education, writes that standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and GRE were developed when most students were Caucasian, male, and upper class, but that as "colleges and universities have admitted more females, and students with a wider range of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic characteristics, standardized tests have not correlated as well with grades for these groups." Nor has the College Board, as argued by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a longtime critic of the SAT, "ever cracked down on widespread misuses of the SAT, such as requiring minimum scores for admissions or scholarships."

The College Board and Coleman do not seem to understand that the SATs have become a tool for exclusion and unfairness. College rankings and other prestigious designations rely heavily on the test’s profile of an entering class despite the fact that scores have little validity for a large portion of this country’s changing student population. It is common for institutions to frame debates on their missions with the dichotomous paradigm of "quality versus diversity." They ask themselves: How do we increase diversity without lowering standards (that is, without admitting students with lower SAT scores)?

Scores are also used in defining what has become a popular topic in education: the "achievement gap." You cannot take a population of students—for example, Latinos in my state, Washington—and apply a test that has no validity for them, and then, when they score lower, label them as suffering an achievement gap.

We do not have an achievement gap between Latinos and whites; we have a development gap. Latinos and other underserved students are not afforded high-quality services, modern equipment, and well-paid teachers and counselors. Coleman and the College Board need to own up to their complicity in unfairly labeling poor and minority students.

The SAT makeover follows a study that examined the predictive value of standardized tests and their fairness across a wide and diverse population of students. The report, "Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions," reviewed more than 123,000 student records from a broad cross section of institutions across the country that practice a test-optional policy in admission.

The study was led by William Hiss, a former dean of admissions at Bates College, which for decades has been a test-optional institution. The results showed that high-school GPA was just as good and often better at predicting college academic success than were standardized tests.

My institution, Washington State University, was one of the public universities that participated in the study. Our results showed the same phenomenon that Bates has demonstrated for decades—no significant difference in the cumulative college GPA or graduation rate between those students who submit their scores and those who do not.

Since 2008, Washington State has been an SAT-optional institution. We decided that students with a high-school GPA of 3.5 or higher, or who were ranked in the top 10 percent of their graduating class, would be granted automatic admission, provided they had taken the required college-prep curriculum. (Shortly after our announcement, Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University followed with similar programs.) We put the program into effect because we understood that standardized tests are not good at predicting academic success or measuring innate intelligence and personal commitment. What the SAT’s do measure well is family income.

A real overhaul of the SATs requires that colleges redefine the meaning of quality from one based on exclusion to one based on inclusion. People at the so-called elite institutions too often define their institutions’ academic quality by the SAT average of their incoming freshman class. "High-achieving students" and the "best and the brightest" are how they often describe their students. But that is just another way of saying "wealthier students with higher SAT’s." What those institutions will not acknowledge is that those students are also easier to teach.

At Washington State, where a not insignificant number of our faculty members themselves were also the first in their families to attend college, we recognize that some of the students we enroll present a difficult set of challenges. But the ability to educate the underserved, poor, and ignored middle class will have a much greater impact on this country’s future than who gets into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or the University of Michigan.

Bill Gates made a similar statement regarding the use of SATs as a definition of quality in an interview with The Chronicle in 2012. He asked why universities do not proudly proclaim, "We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers." That is a definition of quality based on inclusion, not exclusion, and something of which colleges should be proud.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend to reduce the role of standardized testing in college admissions and scholarships. More than 800 colleges and universities, mainly on the East Coast, now use some form of testing-optional practice in their admissions office.

I work as a trainer and consultant for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which offers scholarship opportunities for minority students. Scores are not used; we read only essays and attempt to evaluate students’ various noncognitive skills—leadership qualities, ability to handle and navigate racism, community involvement, and whether or not they have a realistic self-appraisal.

SATs do not measure those qualities, and they certainly do not measure the academic potential of a young Latina from Brewster, Wash., who has earned a 3.75 GPA while she holds down a job, plays a significant role in raising her younger siblings, and manages the family home because her parents work 12 to 18 hours a day picking crops. This particular student may not have a high SAT score, but there is no achievement gap for her. She has already achieved so much in her young life, and the richness and wisdom of her accomplishments will bring so much to any institution lucky enough to enroll her. Her achievements are as important a measure of quality for an institution as a high SAT.

For Washington State University and our admissions process, the revamp of the SAT means little. The "Defining Promise" study, though, does mean something. We hope to eliminate the use of standardized tests in the admissions process, but that will take legislative action; the state still requires that we collect the scores of all applicants whether we use them or not. And this summer, we will take a hard look at our scholarship programs and very likely will eliminate the SAT requirement for many of our general freshman scholarships.

After all, as a land-grant institution with a rapidly growing proportion of diverse and first-generation students, we are committed to access and to defining ourselves on how inclusive we can be, not how exclusive we are. It is time we say a prayer, throw dirt on the grave, and bury the SAT.

John Fraire is vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Washington State University.