Should parents tell kids to skip the SAT?

A new study published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling explains that optional testing policies for universities, instead of requiring SAT or ACT scores, can provide a broader reach for finding talented students.

John Nordell/Staff/FILE
A student takes a sample SAT test during her test prep class. The class, taught at one of the Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions centers, helps prepare high school students for the SAT test.

Most young college-bound teens are familiar with this scenario: practice exams, a thick book full of test questions, lost hours of sleep cramming for test day, and the anticipation of waiting for the results. If your palms became sweaty at just the description of the annual SAT and ACT standardized test taking, you would not be alone.

Generations of Americans have struggled through the test since it was first devised in the early 1900s, and more than 100,000 students across the US took the SAT during the school year ending June 2013. The majority of test-takers are seniors in high school gunning for college admittance.

However, SAT and ACT standardized test taking may be falling out of favor as the best way to test a student's readiness for college.

new study published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling explains that optional testing policies at universities – those that make submitting SAT or ACT results optional for applicants – can offer important enrollment and financial planning benefits for college-bound students.

The study, written by William C. Hicks and Valerie W. Franks, asked the basic question, “Are college admissions decisions reliable for students who are admitted without SAT or ACT scores?”  

In the US today, there are around 800 four-year colleges and universities that make submissions of SAT or ACT scores optional, according to a database published by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  

The study found that those who took the standardized tests more often felt discouraged or cut off from the application process after receiving their test results, versus feeling encouraged to continue toward college or university. The study measured cumulative GPAs and college graduation rates for "submitters" – those who submitted standardized test scores – and "non-submitters" in universities with optional testing policies.

The study says that it investigated admissions standards "in four categories: twenty private colleges and universities, six public universities, five minority-serving institutions, and two arts institutions, a total of approximately 123,000 student records at institutions with enrollments from 50,000 students to 350, located in twenty-two US states and territories."  

According to the results, "non-submitters" earned cumulative grade-point averages that were only 0.05 points lower than "submitters" on the 4.0 GPA scale. The difference in graduation rates between the groups was 0.6 percent. Both stats are considered trivial differences by the study authors. 

Also, the study found that those students with higher high school GPAs performed better in college, regardless of drooping test scores in their records. Meanwhile, those students with weaker overall high school GPAs, despite instances of higher standardized test scores, still delivered lower cumulative GPAs in college. 

The study also reviewed who is most likely to take advantage of optional testing policies, and found that "Non-submitters are more likely to be women, first-generation-to-college, all categories of minority students, Pell grant recipients, and students with Learning Differences."

These findings, and the growing list of universities re-examining their entrance and financial aid policies based on studies such as this, might be a beacon of hope for students who struggle with standardized testing, or who lack the support or discretionary income to pay for testing preparation and registration. 

Even without the potential for there to be an SAT or ACT test-taker in the house, parents can still nudge their kids toward higher GPAs. Good grades will likely stay as the top indicator of college-readiness for a long time to come.

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