Noodle Debate Academy: The SAT and ACT

Jennifer Finney Boylan, in an article for the New York Times, wrote that the SAT is a "mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture.” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, has said that the SAT “needs to be abandoned and replaced.” Given these statements, and others who similarly argue against the SAT/ACT, why do colleges still use these tests?

For the first edition of the Noodle Debate Academy, we asked Experts the following question: Jennifer Finney Boylan, in an article for the New York Times, wrote that the SAT is a "mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture.” Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, has said that the SAT “needs to be abandoned and replaced.” Given these statements, and others who similarly argue against the SAT/ACT, why do colleges still use these tests?

The first response comes from...

Noodle CEO John Katzman

“It's surprising that the SAT is not just surviving, but thriving. The ACT and College Board collectively have annual revenues of over $1bb, despite adding very little predictive validity to the applications of about 300,000 students a year applying to highly selective colleges (and, yes, that's $3300 per relevant student).

It persists because the people paying the bills — students and parents — stop caring once the process is over. If the test went well, a student is likely to defend it (it showed how smart he/she is!); if not, he/she doesn't want to talk about it.

Moreover, college admissions officers appreciate the fact that the tests help students self-select (the largest use of test scores is students deciding not to apply because their scores are too high or low), and give a free data point. They need a testing regimen of some sort — without one, GPA would be even more inflated and manipulated than it is today. Only when someone comes out with a better product will the SAT and ACT disappear.”

Other experts also weighed in.

Kyle Redford, Teacher and Education Editor at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

A recent study tracked 123,000 students at 33 test-optional public and private colleges and universities over 8 years and concluded that high school GPA is actually a better predictor of college success than SAT or ACT scores. According to Bill Hiss, the lead author of the study, standardized tests were originally utilized to discover untapped talent, otherwise obscured by remote geography or other obstacles related to socio-economics. Paradoxically, today, research indicates that standardized test scores rise with parental wealth.

Moreover, there are simply too many things that a Saturday spent shading bubbles in a high school gym doesn’t measure, including a student’s work ethic, resourcefulness, curiosity, creativity, and a capacity to formulate an original idea. Colleges reluctantly accept these tests that often obscure, rather than reveal, talent because they want a standard tool that compares students across dissimilar schools. However, support for “test-optional” admission policies is increasing among schools seeking more diverse student populations.

Dan Edmonds, Noodle’s VP of Research and Development

“First of all, the good news is that there are more test optional schools with each passing year, so colleges, happily, are using these tests less and less. That said, there has been a vast increase in the number of applications received by most schools over the past couple of decades, and the SAT and ACT provide overwhelmed, overworked admissions offices with a quick, easy metric for categorizing applicants. Switching to a more holistic evaluation that doesn't involve standardized testing is expensive and more resource intensive for schools, especially during the transition. Colleges are also motivated to collect the numbers because these scores are used by many college rankings, including the popular US News and World Report rankings, a mediocre ranking that has a sadly enormous influence on how schools are perceived by the general public.”

Scott Farber, President and Founder of A-List Education

“I wish there existed some perfect way to evaluate students nationwide on a range of skills, allowing universities to employ a fair, standard measure of comparison. But right now there isn’t, and to argue we are simply better off without the SAT/ACT is to deny colleges a valuable data set necessary to make informed decisions. Admissions offices use GPA, activities, teacher recommendations and the SAT/ACT to get a complete picture of an applicant, not scores alone. Boylan’s melodramatic claim that reading English and solving math problems for 4 hours is tantamount to torture is not only unhelpful it feeds into the hype that these tests are all powerful. Any meaningful discussion about standardized tests must address colleges’ concerns that a GPA can be misleading (weighted averages, extra credit work, subjective grading), resumes can be padded, and disparate educational programs can create varying levels of student quality — some standardized measure can at least provide a context for evaluation.”

Anthony-James Green, Founder of Test Prep Authority

"The SAT plays an obvious, though rarely discussed, role in the admissions process: SAT scores let colleges know who can and can't pay tuition. SAT scores track linearly with income and wealth — so while many colleges are "need blind," they don't actually have to see an applicant's bank balance to figure out whether he'll be able to pay tuition; they can just check his SAT scores instead. Colleges might not be "for profit," but they're not charities. They're interested in collecting money, and they do that by accepting a large proportion of students who can pay full freight. Therefore, they need a metric that allows them to figure out a student's ability to pay tuition WITHOUT being so callus as to ask — and voila, you have the SAT. Not every wealthy student gets high scores, and not every financially disadvantaged student gets low scores, but when you're accepting a large body of students, the averages play out. It's totally screwed up, but it's the way it is."

Lucas Fink, resident SAT expert at Magoosh

Bard College, my alma mater, is extremely progressive, so Botstein’s words aren’t an accurate representation of the general attitude toward standardized tests. The simple reason that the SAT and ACT are still popular is that they provide hard data by which to compare students. The standard college application is already full of qualitative information on students’ personalities, skills, and goals — think application essays and extracurriculars, to start. SAT and ACT scores provide a way for those students whose applications aren’t as strong otherwise to show that they’re good problem solvers and read carefully even if the rest of their application doesn’t show those skills as clearly. Yes, the tests are stressful (although a “ritual of torture” is a bit melodramatic), but there aren’t many ways to get standardized information on those core skills, especially since high schools have varied grading standards. The problem is not that the tests need to be abandoned; it’s that they cannot stand on their own as measurements of a student’s potential.”

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