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Does new S.A.T. help with admissions decisions?

The College Board releases a positive report on the writing section, but many schools are doing their own studies.

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"The new SAT is a test at war with itself," says Saul Geiser, a researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, who conducted the UC studies.

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Particularly in low-performing high schools, the main SAT sends a more daunting message, he says, because of its traditional association with aptitude. "There's a fear of appearing stupid.... Whereas with achievement tests, [a low score simply means] you haven't learned the material," he says.

A steady trickle of schools has gone the SAT-optional route. About 760 four-year schools have reduced their emphasis on the scores or made them optional, according to FairTest.

Some see playing down the SAT as part of their commitment to a fair playing field for low-income and minority students. For instance, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Smith College in Northampton, Mass., both cited the correlation of high SAT scores with high family income when announcing their recent decisions to no longer require standardized admissions test scores.

Fourteen years ago, Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., decided to let applicants send in a graded non-fiction writing sample from a class in lieu of SAT or ACT scores. The school wanted to "recruit more students who perhaps did well academically but didn't necessarily excel in standardized tests," says admissions director Chris Markle. About 15 percent of applicants choose "The Write Option," he says, and "we've found that the grades and graduation rates of those who applied with SATs were nearly identical to those who applied without them."

While liberal arts colleges may be well equipped to assess each applicant that closely, "larger universities really need this standardized tool [of the SAT] to deal with thousands of applications," says Mr. Bunin of the College Board. "The SAT is a fair national benchmark."

Peter Salins, former provost of the State University of New York and a professor at the Stony Brook campus, agrees. He says that from 1997 to 2001, SUNY campuses that increased selectivity, in part by requiring higher SAT scores, found their graduation rates rising significantly, while similar campuses that didn't boost their SAT profile saw much smaller gains.

Schools don't have to exclude anyone based on lower SAT scores, Mr. Salins says, but they can still use those scores to identify students who might need more help in certain areas.

A new independent study out of the University of Georgia Terry College of Business shows the SAT writing section predicts more than just first-year college grades, at least at large public institutions. For every 100 points more students scored on the 800-point writing test, first-year students gained .07 on a 4-point GPA scale; in English classes, they gained .18 on GPA; and they took .54 more credit hours (a full load is 12 to 15 hours). Researchers controlled for factors such as parents' income and level of education, a methodology that some observers say the College Board should have used in its study.

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