For Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, dropping the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as an admissions requirement reflects a desire to send a message to high school students and their parents.
''What we're trying to say,'' says William Hiss, dean of admissions at the small private college, ''is that what you do for the four or five years before you come here - and not just on one morning's exam - is what we will be very carefully evaluating.'' The decision to drop the SAT, announced in October, is effective with this year's admissions.
Included in Bates's evaluation are grade-point average and class standing, as well as the difficulty of courses taken, reputation of the high school attended, depth and breadth of extracurricular activities, and writing ability.
The school's decision to drop the SAT requirement for admission reflects a small but growing trend at colleges to make the admissions process more personal and to produce better-rounded freshman classes.
For example, the University of Miami, a private college of 18,000 students in Coral Gables, Fla., has reduced its reliance on direct mailing while beefing up its staff of admissions officers. The school will concentrate on developing contacts with high school guidance counselors, and it has assigned professional counselors to represent the school in its major student markets. Campus visits will also be more heavily promoted.
And Harvard University, which now requires the two-part SAT (with verbal and math sections) and three College Board Achievement Tests, is considering dropping the SAT but requiring five achievement tests.
Bates's decision may also show that, with a college's reputation increasingly important as numbers of high school graduates drop, schools are working harder to keep their names in the limelight. Certainly the national coverage generated by the decision did not displease Bates. And now Colby College, in Waterville, Maine, is taking the opportunity to set itself apart as ''the only selective liberal arts college in Maine that requires the SAT.'' (Bowdoin College in Brunswick stopped requiring the SAT in 1969.)
At Colby, a study completed two years ago found that standardized tests, including the SAT, can be useful in predicting how well a student will do at the school. As a result, the school decided to continue requiring either the SAT or the American College Test (ACT), and three College Board Achievement Tests. Reflecting the findings of other schools, Colby found that the English composition portion of the achievement tests was the best predictor of success at the school. It also found that the math portion of the SAT had useful predictive value. ''We decided that not to require the SAT would be to deprive us of information that is sometimes very useful,'' says Robert McArthur, Colby's dean of admissions.
As Colby's decision suggests, the changes at Bowdoin and Bates do not mean that the SAT and other standardized tests are about to lose their importance as tools used by colleges for admissions and, later, placement.
Philip McCabe, dean of admissions at Northeastern University in Boston, says his school - the largest private university in the United States - will continue to require the SAT and three College Board Achievement Tests as it stokes efforts to attract a national and international student body.
But he adds that it is rare for the school to ''reject or accept'' on the basis of the tests alone. Reflecting a general movement, he says that ''over the past few years the SAT has been used more and more for determining placement'' in math and English courses.
And Richard Shaw, assistant director of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley, says he sees little chance that selective public universities will move away from standardized tests such as the SAT and College Board Achievement Tests. Still, ''The grade-point average, keeping in mind the content of the courses, remains the best predictor of how a student will do,'' Mr. Shaw says. ''A good number of our students are taken on the GPA and the tests.''
According to the College Board, which sponsors the SAT, the number of colleges requiring the test has climbed to a high this year of 1,562, up from 1, 340 five years ago.
Noting that Bates's decision has caused the same sort of publicity as did Bowdoin's 15 years ago, College Board president George Hanford says, ''This may be a very good move for Bates, but it's really not indicative of any trend.'' Bates will still require three College Board Achievement Tests.
According to Mr. Hiss, researchers at Bates found that the SAT had ''virtually the same predictive value'' as the Achievement Tests. This, he says, meant that the school was requiring ''surplus standardized testing.''
In addition, he says the research revealed that almost one-third of Bates applicants were using coaching services in preparing for the morning-long SAT. ''There's a question of fairness to those who can't afford the coaching,'' observes Hiss. But he says such numbers also raise the question: ''If the coaching doesn't work, then all those kids are being cheated; and if it does, then the test is not really standardized.'' Hiss also acknowledges claims that tests such as the SAT put minority, low-income, and rural students at a disadvantage.
Finally, Hiss notes that cutbacks in guidance counseling staffs have left more high school students on their own in college selection. And he says that many otherwise qualified students have been ''pulling themselves out of the running'' after matching their SAT scores against Bates test score averages listed in college guides.
''Students were making their decision on a much too narrow SAT band,'' says Hiss. ''What we're saying is, 'That's not the way to go about it.' ''
The growing emphasis at Bates will be to encourage students to ''individualize'' their application package - with such ''evidence'' as tapes of their own music or samples of their writing, for example - so the college can get a better idea of what talents, academic and otherwise, the student has to offer the college community.
A similar individual emphasis can be found at Colby. According to admissions dean McArthur, the school has found that in any given year about two-thirds of the 3,100 students who apply for 400 freshman places are well qualified. ''Because of that, we find ourselves looking for reasons to accept a student,'' says McArthur. And he adds that, particularly in the case of the late-bloomer with a less than overwhelming high school record, that ''reason'' might be good SAT scores.
McArthur says he is mindful that ''many students are convinced colleges, especially the selective ones, give more importance to standardized tests than is actually the case.'' But he says the school's admissions officers work with high schools to inform students that tests are only one element of the admissions process and that transcripts and other factors are considered first.
Just how much importance students place on the SAT is open to debate. But the College Board's Mr. Hanford says he thinks the test serves as a tool for students in selecting ''the kinds of schools they are most apt to fit into academically.'' Beyond that, he counters claims that tests such as the SAT put minorities at a disadvantage by noting that 20 percent of students taking the SAT are minorities - compared with 5 percent for the College Board Achievement Tests. ''For schools looking for unidentified minority talent, I'd say the SAT, and certainly the PSAT (Preliminary SAT, taken in the junior year), are about the best talent search tests.''
Hanford says he puts little stock in the argument that high school students experience undue anxiety over a test that doesn't count as much as they think. ''Kids are tested a lot today. They take the SAT as a fact of life.''
And with education leaders now calling for periodic national tests throughout a child's education, that statement appears destined to become all the more true.