As predictably as fall marks the beginning of the new school year in campuses across the country, so, too, does it usher in new attacks on standardized testing. The 2011 version comes in the form of a new book, "SAT Wars," a collection of essays that purports to be an authoritative account of the controversy over one particular test used by most selective universities in their admissions process. But far from being an unbiased account of the pros and cons of using any standardized test -- much less the SAT, one of the most thoroughly studied, modified, and continuously validated tests in history -- the book is really an attack on standardized testing per se.
Currently, the overwhelming majority of selective schools require that students submit their SAT scores or the alternative ACT, when they apply for admission. The test is used as one measure among several -- usually including high school grades, class rankings, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, application essays, and other factors -- to choose among applicants. But a move to make the SAT optional has taken hold at some selective schools. At Bowdoin College in Maine and Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, those students who choose to do so still submit their scores, but those who don't wish to, do not. Naturally, students who score less well than they had hoped are more likely to opt out of submitting scores.
The movement away from requiring the SAT has picked up steam in the last few years, ostensibly driven by the desire to increase racial and ethnic diversity at colleges. If it's true, this would be troubling enough, since the desire to achieve a predetermined ethnic or racial mix should play no role in determining who gets into college. But, in any event, the real motive behind the SAT-optional movement is more complicated and self-serving.
It is true that, on average, SAT scores for whites and Asians exceed those for blacks and Hispanics. The mean combined SAT score for math and reading for whites in 2010 was 1064; for Asians, 1076; for Hispanics, 914; and for blacks, 857. For years, critics of the test have argued -- without much evidence -- that these score disparities prove that the test is biased. The Education Testing Service, which administers the SAT, as well as other standardized tests used in college and graduate school admissions, has worked strenuously over the years to ensure that no racial or cultural bias creeps into the questions on the test. Moreover, ETS has spent a great deal of time and money recalibrating the tests and validating them to prove that test scores accurately predict academic success in college.
Although some of the essays in "SAT Wars" argue that both racial and gender bias is built into the test, there is little hard evidence to back the claim. Not only do SATs predict first-year college grades reasonably well, but their predictive value also continues throughout students' tenure, according to a carefully done meta-analysis of several studies by M.A. Vey and others in 2003. And rather than underestimating subsequent performance for minority students, SAT scores actually slightly over-predict how well black students will perform once in college.
So why are increasing numbers of selective schools deciding to make the test optional for applicants? The motive may have less to do with promoting diversity than it does with promoting higher college rankings by the schools that have gone SAT-optional.
Since the 1980s, U.S. News & World Report's annual issue announcing the rankings of competitive colleges and universities has become the most popular way to determine the quality and standards of America's colleges. Although SAT scores ostensibly count for only 10 percent of the overall ranking, a study of the correlation between average SAT scores and college ranking showed that there was an almost perfect correlation (.89) between the two. Thus, if lower-scoring students choose not to submit their scores at schools that permit it, the school's ranking may stay artificially high, even as the quality of the students admitted drops.
Standardized testing for college admissions began as way to level the playing field for students of ability to overcome whatever social or economic disadvantages they might have had when applying to elite schools. Traditionally, elite schools relied less on how academically promising the applicants were and more on whether they were well-connected. It is high irony now that those who most want to eliminate standardized testing do so claiming that they are promoting fairness -- when in fact they're still only promoting themselves.