Will California lead way to a post-SAT era?
Proposal to drop it in state school admissions reopens debate about test's benefits and costs
It has become a rite of passage, the three-hour marathon that sends chills through high school students as they sit down with No. 2 pencils: the dreaded SAT.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Two million students take the SAT each year. Nine out of 10 colleges and universities require it from applicants. Most admissions officers say the SAT and high-school grade-point averages, taken together, are the best predictors of college success.
But don't tell that to Richard Atkinson. The president of the University of California says he wants to dump the SAT as an admissions requirement.
His pointed proposal at a recent national meeting of college presidents has intensified the drumbeat of debate over the SAT's value. Critics have long claimed the test discriminates against women and minorities.
But the test has also been lauded for acting as a useful reference point in an era when applicants have dramatically varied academic backgrounds and grades are often inflated. Many schools have been left wondering: Can institutions assure student quality without the SAT?
Getting into an elite college was one of Lien Le's early goals. But the Vietnamese immigrant didn't even submit SAT scores to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a top-ranked school.
Not doing so would have locked her out of most schools. But Bates has a 15-year-old policy that makes SAT scores optional. And no standardized tests have been required for Bates applicants for a decade.
The decision to admit Ms. Le involved little risk, according to William Hiss, the former Bates director of admissions who led the charge for dropping the SAT requirement. Without the SAT as a guide, Le's application, essay, recommendations, and transcript were read very carefully, Hiss says. She had graduated first in her high school class.
As an eighth-grader in Portland, Maine - fresh from a refugee camp - she had learned English slowly. She was sharp in math. But the verbal portion of the SAT was not built with Le in mind. Still, it was clear to the Bates admissions office that this woman was as determined and capable as they come, whether an SAT score said so or not.
In 1999, Le graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Bates. Now she's attending medical school at Dartmouth University.
"She's exactly the person we are trying to find," says Mr. Hiss, now vice president of administrative services, which oversees admissions. "If we had required the SAT, it probably would have screened her out. There are tens of thousands of those kids in California."
In the case of the University of California, Dr. Atkinson says a move away from the SAT would lead to greater confidence in the fairness of the admissions process. It would also direct student energies toward regular studies instead of test prep.
"I concluded what many others have concluded, that America's overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system," Atkinson said in a Feb. 18 keynote speech to the American Council on Education, a gathering of hundreds of college and university presidents.
He called "disturbing" the hours high school students spend developing test-taking skills rather than reading and writing.