Goodbye SAT?

, Bethany Stotts, 1 Comment

Criticisms of the flaws of standardized testing abound in American education circles, be it for allegations of racism in the ACT and SAT’s or complaints about No Child Left Behind’s unaccountable “accountability.” Now FairTest, a non-profit opposed to the “misuses and flaws of testing practices,” has advanced a media campaign heralding Wake Forest University’s recent choice to become “test-optional” as the harbinger of a national trend.

Both Smith College and Wake Forest University announced their switch to test-optional admission policies this month, but WFU’s crossover is exceptional due to its rank as 30th among the nation’s top universities—the highest-ranking college to no longer require SAT scores for admission (U.S. News and World Report rankings). FairTest claims that 755 colleges are currently test-optional, but its methodology has significant flaws.

“By making the SAT and ACT optional, we hope to broaden the applicant pool and increase access at Wake Forest for groups of students who are currently underrepresented at selective universities,” said Martha Allman, director of admissions, in the WFU’s new release. She argued that downplaying the role of standardized tests would demonstrate how the university values “individual academic achievement” and “talent and character.”

The change is also supposed to help “diversify” college’s application base. According to an article by Inside Higher Education, when the Worcester Polytechnic Institute removed its SAT score requirements, applications among minorities went up considerably.

– female applications increased 7%

– minority applications increased 10%

– and out-of-state applications increased by 8%.

Local news reports emphasize that students do well in college despite the lack of rigorous admissions testing. “Advocates of test-optional policies point to studies showing that students who don’t submit scores have lower average test scores than other admitted students, but get better grades once they enter college,” writes Erica Perez for a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel feature on Lawrence University’s switchover.

“The trend comes as standardized tests have faced increased scrutiny for possible bias against students who are the first in their family to go to college, minorities or non-native English speakers,” she writes.

While standardized tests may have racially-influenced outcomes, this columnist has already established that minorities and disadvantaged youth perform poorly on standardized tests across the board—be it international tests, ACTs, the Advanced Placement tests, or the SATs. Rather than unfairly favoring “elite” and “upper class” students, the tests may simply reflect the reality of America’s ongoing achievement gap.

Yet a Charlotte Observer reporter, Jane Stancill, goes further, writing that “In education circles, the debate has long simmered about the value of the SAT—a key factor used by elite universities to weed out applicants. Studies have shown that standardized tests tend to have built-in racial and socioeconomic biases.”

WFU sociology professor Joseph Soares told Stancill that the SAT is “a very reliable predictor of family income. If you are picking students from the higher end of the SAT bell curve, you are overwhelmingly picking students from economically privileged backgrounds.” The author of The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges, Soares told Inside Higher Education that “Everybody has been very keen on making sure SAT scores were not preventing us from getting more diverse.”

But the test’s makers disagree. “The SAT is a fair test,” said College Board spokeswoman Alana Klein. She told the Associated Press that there is no trend among eminent schools to do away with SAT scores and that smaller colleges adopt these methods because they prefer a holistic admissions approach, not because they are concerned about minority students.

While the colleges switching to the “fairer” system of optional testing come from diverse areas and disciplines, many seem to have one thing in common: FairTest. The non-profit is dedicated to “fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools.” It also places “special emphasis on eliminating the racial, class, gender, and cultural barriers to equal opportunity posed by standardized tests, and preventing their damage to the quality of education.

The media hype surrounding WFU’s announcement—and other colleges’ transitions—has been considerably influenced by FairTest’s lobbying. Many of the news sources covering these transitions cite FairTest as a source or quote its public education director, Robert Schaeffer, including:

Inside Higher Ed
the Chronicle of Higher Education
the Charlotte Observer
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
and the Winston-Salem Journal.

WFU’s decision received brief recognition by the New York Times, as well as the Businessweek and U.S. News and World Report news blogs, but these outlets did not quote from FairTest.

Given FairTest’s long-standing animosity towards standardized testing, it can hardly be considered an unbiased source, yet those stories touting WFU’s decision as a denoting a national trend often quote exclusively from WFU representatives and FairTest. This likely exaggerates the importance of WFU’s decision. Readers also should keep in mind two important factors:

1.) WFU will continue to accept SAT scores as optional component within applications and will require students to report their scores after they are accepted to the University.

2.) FairTest’s “test-optional” rankings include universities which require students to disclose SAT and ACT scores as part of the standard admission process.

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.