In Defense Of The SAT II

The Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, spoke out for SAT II tests at a recent panel at Harvard. The utility of the examinations has come into question as the University of California mulls dropping their SAT II application requirements. The Crimson reports on Fitzsimmons’ surprisingly spirited defense:

“The SAT IIs have been better predictors than either high school grades or the SAT [I],” he said.

However, the University of California panel’s proposal stated that the SAT II “contributes very little to UC’s ability to predict which applicants will perform well initially at UC.”

The panel also claimed that black and Hispanic applicants, as well as poorer applicants, were less likely to receive proper preparation that would enable them to perform well on the SAT II exams.

Fitzsimmons disagreed, saying that disadvantaged students sometimes perform better on SAT II tests.

“There happen to be people from poor and modest-income backgrounds who might be able to focus more on their actual subjects in school,” he said.

The SAT II examinations have always seemed a relative leveler to me – and simple numerical requirements a very flexible requirement. The exams gauge a certain seriousness of effort in particular subjects, which the enterprising student should not have difficulty selecting and anticipating. My SAT II experiences were not, on the main, especially reliant upon classroom preparation (I fared well on one exam for which I had no prior coursework) but rather test fundamentals about the subject that can often be picked up with independent study. They’re a useful, objective indication, to me, of a student’s effort at grasping a subject in some depth – a measure, to me, that seems far more relevant to college prospects than letter grades.

Of course, prior preparation is likely to be important for some or all of the tests required, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find students intent on middle-tier colleges who lacked adequate preparation in all sixteen of the test areas: Literature, U.S. History, World History, Math, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and nine languages. If that’s the case, there’s an argument for reforming a high school, not the UC admission standards. If the student’s mired in such a lamentable place, they can still study their way to better performance independently; Fitzsimmons seems to recognize exactly this. I’ve no doubt that admissions departments greatly value such demonstrations of ability from underperforming high schools. The SAT II requirement is one of the least objectionable demands for college applicants there are, demanding proof of rigor, but in a flexible format; hopefully UC might listen to Harvard and hold on to them.


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