Focus less on the S.A.T., study tells colleges

Exams tied to school curricula may be a viable alternative for admissions assessment, a year-long study says.

Julia Malakie/AP/FILE
Test prep: For families who can afford the courses, private firms help prepare students for the SAT test.

Colleges need to rethink their heavy reliance on students' SAT and ACT scores in deciding who gets in.

That's a key conclusion drawn by a group of high school counselors and college officials after a year-long study of admissions testing.

Rather than suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach, the group urges colleges to study how well such tests predict academic success of freshmen on their own campuses – and to consider dropping them if they aren't useful enough.

The 21-member panel, chaired by Harvard's dean of admission, will present its findings Friday at the annual meeting of the group that convened it, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. NACAC members include high school counselors and admissions officers from about 1,700 colleges and universities.

Admissions tests affect not only college applicants, but also everything from merit aid to college rankings. They're a growing source of controversy: Hundreds of colleges have decided to make the tests optional, but overall, the weight they're given has increased. According to NACAC surveys, 59 percent of colleges attributed considerable importance to admissions tests in 2005, compared with 47 percent a decade earlier.

"The admissions profession has been doing some soul-searching about what we're doing to these kids – and the inappropriate overreliance on standardized testing is probably one of the easy ones we could fix," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington, which did not participate in the commission.

In defense of the SAT

Not everyone agrees with the criticisms of standardized testing.

"It is still the single most reliable, comprehensive metric that one can find," says Peter Salins, former provost of the State University of New York system.

Expensive test-prep courses may give affluent students a marginal advantage, Mr. Salins acknowledges. But the unfairness "would be exacerbated in an SAT-less universe, because then the kind of schools they go to [such as wealthy suburban or elite urban schools] would get enormous preference in the admissions process," he says.

In suggesting possible alternatives, the commission says tests tied to high school curriculum, such as the College Board's Advanced Placement exams and Subject Tests, are useful predictors of students' grades during their first year in college. The group urges colleges to consider these tests when possible.

It also calls for the NACAC and other groups to help develop better achievement tests that could be used for admissions and at the same time give students greater incentive to do well in high school.

Currently, admissions test prepping "takes up way too much emotional and intellectual energy," says Brad MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School in Massachusetts and an NACAC member. "I'd say to students years ago, 'Did you do any test prep?' and now it's more, 'Where did you do your test prep?' ... It's almost like a rite of passage."

Families often believe test prep leads to larger score gains than research bears out, the report says.

Seppy Basili, senior vice president of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions in New York, says, "We don't quote average score increases.... It's awfully misleading, and there was a time in our industry when it was rampant."

But if admissions officers relied on achievement tests instead of standardized tests, tutoring in that realm would ramp up as well, Mr. Basili says.

The College Board, a nonprofit that administers the SAT, said in a written statement that it is "in complete agreement that the best preparation for college admissions tests is knowledge gained from an academic core curriculum. The College Board has long advised parents and students against short-term, commercial preparation courses." It also affirms the importance of the SAT, partly as a guard against high school grade inflation.

Complaints about how the tests are used

Besides questioning the value of the SAT and ACT, the commission highlights what it considers misuse of test scores.

It calls upon U.S. News and World Report to stop using average test scores in its ranking formulas for top colleges, because it "creates undue pressure on [college] admission offices to pursue increasingly high test scores."

The commission also asks the National Merit Scholarship Corp. to stop using the PSAT/NMSQT, a test similar to the SAT, as the "initial screen" for scholarship eligibility.

Because lower scores are correlated with lower-income or minority status, such screening "basically says students who don't need the money are more eligible for it," says high school counselor MacGowan.

The National Merit Scholarship Program, in which students compete for academic recognition and scholarships, defends its approach. "There's really no other alternative for ... screening 1.5 million high school students" who compete for the scholarships, says spokeswoman Eileen Artemakis.

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