SAT Mania

Student Worth is More Than a Set of Numbers

A HIGH school guidance counselor told me recently that when she asked students at a retreat to state their proudest achievement on a corner of their name tag, one young lady wrote: My SAT Scores. Both of us were shocked but not surprised. Many families perceive the Scholastic Aptitude Test as the pearly gateway to a good college. And their obsession with scores affects not only which colleges they will consider but also how students perceive themselves as people.

Who is responsible for SAT mania?

The Educational Testing Service is an easy target, because it makes and sells the tests and, of course, stands behind its product. But ETS does not share scores publicly or determine who uses them or how. The source of data in college guides and all those nifty ratings is ultimately colleges themselves.

Are the colleges to blame? Faced with competition for fewer students and knowing that selectivity is the essence of prestige, many have taken to ``massaging'' data they release. Some are doing so irresponsibly.

The tinkering started innocently enough. Some colleges began excluding foreign students and members of high-risk programs whose low scores would skew data and hence present a false picture of admissibility to most families.

From there it was an easy step to exclude minorities, athletes, children of alumni, students drawn from the waiting list or admitted conditionally because they weren't ``typical.''

The newest wrinkle is a category called NIPS (Not in Profile Students), a sort of self-granted license for a college of easy virtue to exclude anyone it cares to.

Colleges that are scrupulous about scores - and there are many - are understandably enraged. And admissions officers are exploring solutions.

One is simply not to release scores. But if SATs are a factor in admission, it seems unfair not to share data with students who are deciding whether to apply. The College Board suggests releasing ranges of the middle 50 percent instead of averages. A third suggestion - my preference - is to release percentages of enrolled freshmen scoring in numerical ranges by hundreds. Such data are not new. Many colleges now provide sophisticated breakdowns and even key them to rank in class.

But what's to prevent colleges from fudging these figures, too? I'd feel better if they would adopt an industry standard for whom to include in profiles and agree further that the ETS, not colleges, will release the numbers.

Dishonesty is deeply distressing in institutions that stand for intellectual integrity, where the latest fashion is to strengthen business programs by adding ethics courses.

The real source of SAT mania is the way so many families oversimplify the college search. But should we be surprised if families who assess the strength of a college largely on numbers conclude that colleges must do the same when they evaluate a son or daughter?

Personally, I wish SATs could disappear from the face of the earth. Some sterling and very choosy institutions like Bates and Bowdoin have gotten by nicely without them for years.

Colleges would have a harder time deciding whether education at an unfamiliar high school is superb or sorry. They would lose some ability to predict performance. And I would lose a once-useful tool for advising clients on admissibility.

But we would gain far more. Without the crutch of scores, families might approach their college investment like consumers instead of supplicants. Students might care less about a college's popularity and more about whether it offers the right amalgam of learning, experiences, and people to nourish them for a lifetime.

But the biggest gain would be recapturing the energy students squander on SATs. I'd rather see them pour it into their studies, their school, and community. I'd rather watch them build confidence through accomplishment, not define themselves as a pair of numbers - becoming the kinds of people colleges want, and who will flourish when they get there.

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