Academic Success is Much More Than a Number

The SAT Should Play A Smaller Role In College Admissions


Published: October 16, 2008

Beep. Beep. Beep. I was taking the SAT, quite possibly one of the most decisive events in my college application process, and a distant alarm was beeping throughout the whole test. I thought: I spent months preparing for this exam, and my biggest challenge was ignoring the alarm going off in the background? While that was my main concern, other students had their worries elsewhere. During breaks, the other test-takers voiced their uncertainties: “Is there going to be another essay? How long is this?” Even though I knew the answers off the top of my head (no, and approximately four hours including a 15-minute break) and though I could have felt smug, I felt quite the opposite. The only things that kept me from losing sleep the night before were the numerous practice tests and weekend SAT-prep classes I took. Otherwise, I would have been in the same position as these lost test-takers. Little did I know that walking into my SAT with a sense of confidence was a privilege and not a right.

This past month, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, addressed the issue of whether the SAT is an accurate predictor of success in college. According to Fitzsimmons, “Educational quality has nothing to do, or very little to do, with actual average SAT scores.” An accompanying report published by a NACAC commission, encourages colleges and universities to join in a “process of introspection,” examining the relationship between the SAT and academic success.

The study also conducted a survey that statistically places admission test scores as the third most important factor in the admission decision, following grades in college prep courses and strength of curriculum. This attention given to the SAT gives it the powerful potential to even out the playing field between those at different quality schools, but in reality the SAT has only aided in propagating socioeconomic disparities. The SAT has created a billion-dollar test industry that focuses on beating the test. These test-prep resources have long been known to contribute to the disparity seen in SAT scores across socioeconomic classes. Those of lower socioeconomic classes usually have fewer educational opportunities, including being able to take advantage of this test industry, resulting in a dramatic score difference.

Considering the importance of the SAT as a way for institutions to quantify the academic potential of incoming students, it would be difficult to immediately do away with it. With that in mind, the commission does not suggest that all institutions no longer accept SAT scores. Instead, it urges colleges and universities to regain control over the SAT from the test-prep companies and determine for themselves how much importance it has in evaluating prospective students. After all, the SAT should do more for students than make them into numbers.

With so much talk about colleges, universities and test-prep companies, what does this mean for students? Chances are the anxiety over getting a good SAT score will remain a part of the college application process. However, there is a hope for change, evoked by Fitzsimmons, who stated that it is possible that Harvard might eventually make the SAT optional. As seen in its elimination of early admissions in September 2006, Harvard has often been the leader in college admissions reform.

Fitzsimmons’ move to change the way colleges look at the SAT is an upheaval in the world of college admissions but a shift that has been due for some time. The admission process should focus on students, not work against them. This is especially true for students with great potential but limited educational resources. Students should not be penalized for the opportunities they do not have, and their lives should not be shaped by how well they perform in a four-hour time period. Although the SAT may allow admissions counselors to better compare students from different backgrounds, it should not be a detriment to students without access to private tutors, prestigious college prep schools or test preparation classes.

A better test of a student is his or her curriculum and extracurricular activities, which would display how well an individual student took advantage of the opportunities offered and his or her determination in achieving academic success. Colleges should have the interests of their students in mind, not a desire to boost their rankings. By weighing other admissions criteria over standardized tests, colleges can better focus on the diversity and quality of their student body. As for the SAT, it cannot quantify passion for learning, nor the potential to be successful—in the end, it’s just a number.