Educators Debate SAT-Optional Policies
> 9/22/2006 1:47:25 PM

Continuing a debate that intensified earlier this year as more institutions of higher education opted not to require SAT scores from applicants, Reed College President Colin S. Diver recently wrote a New York Times op-ed deriding the trend as an unfortunate side-effect of self-interested college ranking politics.

Since its inception in the early twentieth century, the SAT (initially called the Scholastic Achievement Test) has increasingly served as one of the few constants in the world of college admissions. Though international students who wish to study in the United States have, at times, been hindered by an inability to take the test, it is an accepted element of college preparation for nearly every student in this country. In 1984, Maine's Bates College became one of the first American schools to end SAT requirements, and many schools use the Bates case as evidence of the experiment's potential for success. After implementing the change, Bates saw a nearly one hundred percent increase in its applicant pool, and a twenty year study revealed no significant difference between the academic performance of those who took the test and those who didn't. Application rates for minority and low-income students also increased after the change.

Citing this year's controversies over a modified, writing-intensive test as well as a nationwide tendency to overemphasize standardized testing, an increasing number of American colleges followed the Bates example and decided not to include the SAT in their list of qualifiers for admission. Not coincidentally, many of the schools who can afford to opt out of mandatory SAT testing also rank among the top colleges in the country, according to the industry standard U.S. News & World Report list, where 24 of the top 100 colleges no longer require SAT or ACT scores. Diver argues that these schools, involved in an ever-intensifying battle for higher rankings, abandon the SAT not to better serve their students but to boost their public profiles. Applicants with lower scores will, of course, choose to forego submitting those numbers far more often than those with exceptional scores. By eliminating the need to tabulate less flattering stats, Diver believes that schools actively improve the average scores of their freshman classes, thereby adding a noticable boost to their  national ranking. Once a school reports slight gains because of this change in policy, rivals feel increasing pressure to follow suit and avoid losing ground in the all-important rankings war.
Most agree that obsessive attention to test scores proves detrimental to many anxious, hopeful students, and the difference between a 1250 and a 1300 on the SAT is hardly definitive. Diver acknowledges the inevitable imperfection of any system used to measure academic proficiency, but he also believes that standardized tests are the most effective tool we have to assess basic intellectual skills like reading comprehension, mathematical aptitude and problem solving. For individual representations of each student, admissions officers should look elsewhere. If colleges choose to ignore unfavorable test scores, he argues, they should abandon the test altogether. About the possibility of granting less traditionally qualified students the opportunity to attend the schools in question, he writes:

The college isn’t doing any favor to applicants by pretending that these skills are not important, or that the beneficiaries of these policies will not have to compete with students possessing those skills in abundance. An institution that, commendably, seeks to enroll more minority and lower-income students can do so by giving less weight to SAT or ACT scores, either across the board or in selective cases. But concealing the applicants’ test scores is just willful blindness.

Whether one agrees with Diver's dismissive assessment or not, the crucial need to place the college experience within the reach of those whose socioeconomic backgrounds are not traditionally conducive to academic success deserves increased attention. At the risk of falling into starry-eyed idealism, we can state that the importance of building on the intellectual and professional potential of students from America and abroad ultimately outweighs any numerical rank.   

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