Shelve the S.A.T?

It's up to colleges to stop the frenzy over the SAT and ACT.

Attention college-bound students: The SAT is overrated. A new study – led by a Harvard official, so it's got Ivy cred – says colleges inflate the importance of the dreaded test and should consider making it optional. Oh, joy! Or...?

The frenzy and anxiety that have built up over this potentially life-altering admissions test must recede. If you're a high school senior right now, you might be taking the SAT for the third or even fourth time, hoping to inch up scores just one more notch – this after having perhaps invested more than $1,000 in a multisession test-prep course.

Students spend far too much time and money on the SAT and its counterpart, the ACT, according to the study released last week by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Their focus is feeding a billion-dollar test-prep industry, and putting less well-off students – often minorities – at a disadvantage. A student's energy would be better directed at high school study.

Meanwhile, the study points out that all this energy is devoted to tests that don't do an adequate job in predicting an applicant's college performance – the reason colleges require these standardized aptitude exams in the first place.

The NACAC study, led by Harvard University Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons, recommends that colleges and universities review the role of the SAT and ACT in admissions and merit aid and, if the tests don't predict performance, consider not requiring them.

More than 280 of the nation's 2,600 four-year colleges and universities don't require standardized aptitude tests. These include several selective private institutions such as Bates College, Wake Forest University, and Smith College.

But the rest still do, and for good reason. The tests are a way to compare students across high schools of all types, and to protect against grade inflation – which has become a serious problem.

The study recognizes these useful functions, and does not aim to do away with testing. But it does suggest improving college entrance exams so that they shift toward testing what students have learned in high school – as do the College Board's Subject Tests and AP exams. Studies show achievement tests like these better predict college performance.

An opportunity for adjustment might be found in the intense attention being paid to high school testing in general. As the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act comes up for renewal next year, Congress could move toward requiring a 12th-grade exam, not merely one test given anytime during high school. Many states already require an exit exam. High schools and colleges could move toward exams for seniors that measure competence as well as college preparedness.

Until then, how to de-emphasize standardized tests? The NACAC study suggests that U.S. News & World Report magazine, which ranks colleges, stop using the test scores as a benchmark. It also recommends that the National Merit Scholarship Program stop using the PSAT (similar to the SAT) as the initial screen for eligibility.

But as the study rightly recognizes, it is colleges and universities themselves that inflate the tests' importance. In 2005, 59 percent of colleges gave "considerable importance" to the tests, compared with only 47 percent 10 years before.

The onus is on colleges to more fairly weigh the tests along with other measures – and to get that message out to applicants.

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