One of my students, a bright young woman from Westchester County, took a break from her marathon SAT Saturday study session to call me. She was anxious about her practice test scores even after prepping for 30 hours last summer and three hours every Saturday since with her tutor. She's an A student, keen on classics, lots of leadership, high subject and AP scores, but a top SAT score still eludes her.
Should colleges assume that brilliant students simply hammer out triple 800s? I work with top SAT scorers -- many triple 800 students -- and their stories are the same: taking 10-15 full-length three-hour practice tests for two years of intensive drilling. My 10th grade daughter recently flew back with us from Hong Kong. On that flight, she sat beside a Chinese student (from Choate) who spent the entire 16 hours on SAT prep and practice tests (my daughter watched seven movies).
I spent four years working as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College where I evaluated thousands of applicants from around the world. I see the value of standardized test scores. College Board Subject tests (formally called SAT II's or subject tests), are helpful in norming grades. Without them, I and my admissions colleagues couldn't easily compare a student who received an A in chemistry from a top private school in Connecticut, to one from a public school in Kansas. Subject test scores give an objective metric. The same is true for the three-hour Advanced Placement exams. Subject and AP tests are helpful for admissions officers because these tests reflect content and don't require students to spend an inordinate amount of time prepping or spending money on expensive tutoring.
The SAT, on the other hand, is helpful, but only to exclude certain high-achieving ethic groups so admissions officers don't have to read all their files with care. Need an easy way to say "no" to an applicant? Just point out that the Critical Reading or Writing score is below your average even if the math score is 800. This eases the job of excluding applicants. And no one on the committee would argue for rejecting a student with a low Critical Reading score because no self-respecting admission director wants average SAT's in U.S. News and World Report to drop below a competing school's average.
The College Board says, "the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a suite of tools designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that's fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century." Hogwash. The majority of studies have shown that SAT scores correspond to socio-economic class. Students from affluent areas spend $15,000 and up on SAT prep and top SAT tutors in New York command $500-$1000 an hour. How is this fair? The majority of studies (like Stanford's Bridge Report) agree that the best predictor of college success is success in rigorous high school classes, NOT SAT scores.
Just what does the SAT test? A typical top college applicant takes high level Calculus or at least Pre-Calculus in 11th grade by the time he/she takes the SAT. But the math on the SAT is Algebra I and Geometry, which advanced students normally study in 7th, 8th or 9th grade. My most advanced students must review basic math they did years before the test. The so-called Writing section? It tests a set of 20 English grammar/usage rules. The 25-minute essay? The Atlantic did a very sharp piece in March, 2004 that showed how the Unabomber would have scored a perfect essay score (organized, clear sentences) while Faulkner and Hemingway would have lost points ("Would Shakespeare get into Swarthmore?"). Length, not content or style, is the key to a high score. And Critical Reading? Random multiple choice reading comprehension questions. As an English teacher, I taught many students who were deep thinkers, but slow readers. That does not mean they had low reading comprehension, but it did mean they tested lower than their peers on the SAT. The SAT tests endurance (three hours), speed (rewarding fast readers, punishing students who engage problems) and basic math and grammar; it has little to do with the curriculum at any top tier college.
Why won't colleges pressure the College Board to drop the SAT in favor of subject and AP tests? Colleges rely on the PSAT (the preliminary version of the SAT) for data on underrepresented minority students and all students who show the potential for high SAT scores. Using these data, colleges drive up their numbers to get as many applicants as possible and then, like Harvard, admit a mere 6 percent or like Princeton, 8 percent of applicants. A huge percentage of their marketing dollars go to the College Board. No one in admissions dares to admit they keep the Asian and Indian numbers down or say "no" to a legacy or development case by citing lower CR and WR scores. But they do.
Ditching the SAT would mean not wasting weekends in 10th and 11th grade taking practice SAT tests and spending huge amounts of money on tutoring. More importantly, it would allow students more TIME to pursue their academic passions, get a job, make an impact on their communities, write for their school newspapers, do high level research, and read for pleasure. The irony, of course, is these are exactly the attributes top colleges profess to want from their applicants. Studying for the SAT only interferes. Too bad that Choate student couldn't have caught a movie or two on the flight or finished Dante's Inferno which lay unread on the tray.