It doesn’t test for success

JOANNE V. CREIGHTON is president of Mount Holyoke College.

BY NOW, MOST OF the country has heard of the College Board’s gaffe in reporting erroneous SAT scores for about 4,000 college-bound students. A single case in which a college does not accept a qualified student because his or her SAT scores are erroneously reported is clearly an injustice. The potential for 4,000 such cases is a disaster that should prompt all colleges, universities, students and their families to ask serious questions about a college placement system that, through a single computational error, can irrevocably alter a student’s educational trajectory.

High-stakes standardized tests such as the SAT have assumed a central role in the admissions process disproportionate to their value. This test falls far short of predicting academic or career potential or a host of important aptitudes, such as curiosity, motivation, persistence, leadership, creativity, civic engagement and social conscience.

Think of all the high school students you’ve ever known, and then think of all the colleges and universities you’ve heard of. Now try to come up with a set of questions that would tell you how each person would do in his or her postsecondary education.

The SAT might have made sense when it was developed in the 1920s, when higher education was an elitist proposition and the college admission pipeline led a relatively homogeneous population of young adults into a similarly uni-dimensional set of colleges and universities. But U.S. secondary education today is a multilingual, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse enterprise, and so too are the 3,000-odd colleges and universities to which high school students aspire.


It seems self-evident that a one-size-fits-all test could not adequately assess the diverse populations of students and schools that make up the U.S. educational landscape. In fact, one need only visit many of our nation’s most prestigious institutions to see the cumulative effect of reliance on the SAT: campuses that are populated predominately by whites, Asians and the rich. Even the wealthiest universities, many of which waive tuition for poorer students, end up educating an embarrassingly small number of students from the lower fifth, economically, of the U.S. population. This is not the meritocracy the SAT’s early proponents had in mind.

Nicholas Lemann wrote in “The Big Test” about how the SAT’s creator, Carl Brigham, who had only egalitarian instincts, eventually came to reject his own theories and what he called “one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or school. The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant.”

Many colleges and universities -- including mine, Mount Holyoke -- have deep-sixed the SAT for precisely these reasons. We found that reliance on the SAT would lead us to reject students who deserved to be admitted based on their previous accomplishments and who would succeed at our schools.

To be sure, such a policy change flies in the face of another pernicious numbers game, that of the annual college rankings manufactured by U.S. News & World Report, which relies heavily on SAT scores and other “input” measures (acceptance rate, money spent per student, alumni giving) to supposedly rank institutions for educational quality. Like the SAT, this rankings game is educationally and morally suspect.

In 2001, Mount Holyoke made the SAT optional for admission. We have been studying the effects of that policy -- with a grant from the Mellon Foundation -- and the results are striking. So far, we have found no meaningful difference in academic performance between students who did not submit scores and those who did. The study shows a one-tenth of a point difference between the aggregate grade point averages of submitters and non-submitters, and this difference is mitigated the further along the student is in her college career.

Translation: We don’t need the SAT in order to predict academic performance in college. A student’s high school curriculum and performance, personal essays, interviews, teachers’ recommendations and other measures give a more holistic view of achievement, potential and fit for a particular institution.

Another early result from the study confirms what has been widely assumed: As families’ income levels rise, so too does the likelihood that the student has had the advantage of SAT training classes or special tutoring. More than two-thirds of prospective Mount Holyoke students from higher-income families took an SAT preparation course, and one in three had private tutoring. If high test scores are for sale, how fair an instrument is the SAT?

Findings like those from our Mellon study are a blow to the test’s credibility. But perhaps it will take a second stake in the SAT’s heart before students and educators everywhere question the role of this American institution. Grading errors are bound to happen over the course of anyone’s education. It’s when a single grading error could potentially keep 4,000 high school students from their choice of college that the SAT’s harmful effects become all too clear.