The SAT and Academic Success

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Last week, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette published an op ed article I wrote about the use of SAT scores and the academic success of students. This piece generated a great deal of response and reaction from leaders in the greater Worcester community.

While many of the readers of this blog live in Worcester, I know that a good number are unlikely to read the T&G regularly.  I thought all of you might be interested in this topic.

SAT and academic success

At the recent State of the Union address, President Obama spoke passionately about the challenges of higher education. While I have many questions about the president’s proposals, it is irrefutable that colleges need to do everything possible to help students graduate.

Student success is closely connected to admission standards. If colleges do a better job in admitting students who are qualified and capable of academic success, graduation rates will be high. Colleges dedicated to student success spend a good deal of time analyzing admission standards and student qualifications.

If you follow changes in higher education, you may have noticed the frequency of news stories announcing that many colleges and universities are removing standardized test scores from their admission requirements. Since the beginning of the 21st century, more and more institutions have been following in the footsteps of schools like Bowdoin and Bates, which made the SAT I test optional as early as 1969 and 1984, respectively.

While this recent effort may appear to be a marketing ploy for colleges and universities to recruit more students in this competitive marketplace, the movement may actually be in the best interest of the U.S. educational system in general, and student success in specific.

Use of standardized test scores in the college admission process began in the 1950s. The Scholastic Aptitude Test became the most popular as it attempted to identify academic talent and intelligence thereby rewarding merit over economic status and opening up access to more exclusive institutions.

After the University of California adopted the SAT as part of its admission process in 1968, its use expanded and it soon became a prominent, if not the centerpiece tool for institutions of higher education when determining which students would be admitted. At the time, SAT results were considered to be valid and useful in measuring a student’s future academic success or failure.

In the 1990s, support for the SATs began to waver, resulting in the name change to Scholastic Assessment Test.  Further controversy was aroused in 1999, when Nicholas Lemann authored “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” which took a critical look at the SAT and questioned its ability to determine student success in higher education.

Although Lemann’s book was thought-provoking, it wasn’t until 2001 that higher ed practitioners began to more seriously question the use of the SAT when Richard Atkinson spoke at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. In his speech, Atkinson challenged that perhaps our country’s educational priorities were being jeopardized as a result of the widespread use of the SAT.

In response to Atkinson’s charges, many colleges and universities began to consider, if not decide, to become test-optional institutions. The movement gained additional momentum when the College Board changed the format of the SAT to include a three-hour-and-forty-five-minute test with an essay added.  As a result, many more schools, including elite colleges and universities, continued to examine the validity of the SAT and other standardized tests in determining college success.

While standardized tests were considered a major tool in the admission process, over the years colleges and universities have identified and used other factors to forecast student success. One of the greatest indicators of success in college has been and continues to be a student’s academic record in secondary school. When reviewing the high school record, admission teams take into account the student’s selection and level of coursework, his/her special academic strengths in relation to the desired college course of study, and the rigor of the academic credentials of the secondary school he or she attended, for example, the percentage of graduates who attend four year colleges, the number of AP course offerings, the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty, class size, etc.

Many admission professionals also report that over the years more emphasis has been placed on the personal attributes that allow a student to be successful in college — leadership qualities, writing skills, citizenship, special interests and talents. Given the growing use of these indicators, and concerns about the significance of the SAT and other standardized tests in forecasting academic success, it is prudent for every college and university to take a critical look at its admission requirements.

At AMC, we did just that. Retention and admission data was analyzed and demonstrated that factors beyond standardized test scores played a much bigger role in determining student outcomes. Driven by its mission and commitment to accessibility, the college admissions office decided that going test-optional was in the best interest of its future students.

President Obama is right to call for colleges and universities to control costs and do everything possible to make college accessible and affordable. But this goal will require cooperation and funding on the federal and state levels, as well as the moderation of tuition increases. It will be a great challenge.

But colleges and universities can act now to ensure the integrity of the admission process. Institutions of higher education should do everything possible to admit students, who have the academic and personal qualities to achieve success. After all, the primary goal of every college student should be to graduate.


(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Saturday, 02 August 2014