Fewer and fewer high school students are taking the SAT exam these days—possibly because fewer colleges are requiring the submission of SAT scores as part of the admissions process. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), an organization that admittedly opposes standardized tests, only 46 percent of graduating seniors in the high school class of 2008 had taken the SAT even once. That compares to the 47.5 percent of graduating seniors in 2005 who had taken the test, according to FairTest.
FairTest’s numbers are corroborated by news reports about the colleges and universities, many with top rankings, that are abandoning the SAT and its rival test, the ACT, in droves. Just a few days ago, Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Smith College in Massachusetts announced that they would no longer require their applicants to submit their scores on either the SAT or the ACT. The two well-regarded institutions added their names to an estimated 750 four-year colleges and universities that now regard the submission of SAT/ACT scores as optional. They include an array of top liberal-arts colleges such as Bard, Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, and Wheaton. Among the very most selective schools, Harvard and Yale still require applicants to submit SAT scores, but at Princeton the scores are optional.
And now the prestigious University of California system, whose 220,000 students come from the top 12.5 percent of their high school graduating classes by a measure that combines SAT scores and high-school grades, has announced a plan, approved by the UC faculty and awaiting ratification by UC President Mark G. Yudof, that would eliminate the current requirement that prospective UC freshmen take the SAT II, a subject-specific achievement exam in such fields as U.S. history that is taken in addition to the SAT’s core aptitude tests in math, verbal skills, and reasoning. A proposal to drop mandatory submission of SAT scores entirely has been floating around the UC system since 2001. Large state universities, in contrast to small liberal arts colleges, have generally held the line on mandatory scores submission, but if California makes the scores optional, it is likely that many other public institutions will follow suit.
The typical justification for jettisoning mandatory submission of SAT scores is that the scores correlate poorly with students’ academic success in college, and that applicants’ high school grades predict their ability to do college-level work far more accurately. In a statement accompanying Wake Forest’s decision to drop the SAT requirement, admissions director Martha Allman asked rhetorically, “Does reliance on standardized testing limit access to our university by discouraging applications from students who would succeed, and even thrive, if they got in?” Such allegations, advanced by FairTest and many college administrators these days, are disputed by the College Board, which oversees the tests. The board recently released the results of a study it had sponsored indicating that scores on a writing section added to the SAT when the exam was revamped in 2005 do appear to correlate strongly with success in college, and that the exam is a useful corrective to the grade inflation that is as rampant in high schools as it is in colleges.
Still, even some who in the past supported the strictly meritocratic approach to college admissions that the College Board has traditionally represented (the SAT attempts to compensate for mediocre high school courses by testing applicants’ innate abilities rather than ), have wondered whether high SAT scores really mean anything anymore, given that parents who can afford it routinely enroll their offspring in expensive cram courses that can boost scores by several hundred points. In a 2007 article in The American magazine, Charles Murray, author of the just-published Real Education, wondered whether this gaming of the system by the wealthy, coupled with the College Board’s tinkering with the exam over the years so as to blur its focus on innate aptitude, hadn’t undercut the SAT’s original aim, which was to “identify intellectual talent regardless of race, color, creed, money, or geography, and give that talent a chance to blossom.” Murray himself attended a so-so public high school in Iowa during the 1950s and credits his high SAT scores for his admission to Harvard.
Nonetheless, it seems clear that a major reason for the current trend of dropping the mandatory submission of SAT and ACT scores isn’t so much admissions officers’ dissatisfaction with the tests themselves as their a desire to blur admissions standards so as to let in more blacks, Hispanics, and members of other ethnic groups whose test scores are generally lower than those of whites and Asians. Racial preferences may not be popular with the general public, but politically correct college administrators, especially at private liberal-arts schools that aren’t accountable to voters, continue to look for back-door ways to consider applicants’ ethnicities in admissions decisions. For example, when Wake Forest a few weeks ago announced its decision to make SAT scores optional, a web article for NextStudent, an Internet student-loan clearinghouse, quoted college consultant Jack Maguire: “I do think [that a test-optional policy] improves a school’s image. It shows…they’re really interested in improving diversity.”
Such politically motivated image-buffing does not come without costs, one of which is that the quality of entering classes as measured by other standards declines somewhat, and the majors chosen by non-submitting applicants tends to skew towards “softer” academic fields such as the arts, broadcasting, and education, while applicants who submit their SAT scores tend to choose science and technology. Such are the results, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month, of a long-term analysis by Bates College in Maine, which dropped its SAT requirement in 1984 and found itself immediately drawing more applications from women, blue-collar and rural young people, international students, and students from low-income households, all members of groups that don’t perform as well on the SAT as middle-class white and Asian males. The study indicated that the non-submitting students tended to pick less challenging majors and maintained slightly lower grade-point averages at Bates (3.06 on average) than those who included their SAT scores in their admissions applications (3.11 on average).
Concerns about diluting the quality of entering students by relaxing SAT requirements prompted the Los Angeles Times to carry a stern editorial on Sept. 2 urging the UC system not to go forward with its proposed admissions changes. California’s voters approved a ballot initiative in 1996 forbidding race-based preferences at public institutions, and the changes in UC admissions policies have been brought forward in the name of “diversity,” as the Times put it—that is, as a way to get around the 1996 restrictions. The UC proposal would not only drop the SAT achievement tests but also redefine the concept of “top students” so as to admit a certain percentage applicants with high-school grade averages as low as C-plus if they displayed other qualities pleasing to admissions officers, such as having overcome extraordinary obstacles. The Times editorialist wrote that “a switch to admitting a fifth of freshmen through subjective review runs a risk of lowering standards, eroding public support for UC and shortchanging students who have put their all into meeting the university’s academic rigor.” Unfortunately, if the UC system slackens off on its tough, SAT-based admissions standards, it is reasonable to expect that other highly selective state universities will follow suit in the name of diversity, and that membership in politically preferred groups rather than individual merit will become the college admissions policy of choice across the country.