Why universities still need the SAT

According to a report released this week by the College Board, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores on the math and critical reading section of the test, which was revised last year, dropped by seven points. The decline was the largest in more than three decades.

Combined with SAT scoring gaffes earlier this year and lost Advanced Placement exams from the May administration, the College Board’s usual host of critics has been delivered fresh ammo. Bob Schaeffer of FAIR test, a persistent critic of standardized tests, said that the most recent scores “show how meaningless the test is as a measure of educational quality.”

William Brown, dean of admissions at Lebanon Valley College, which recently went to a test optional policy of admissions, believes the SAT is “not even close” to being a good predictor of a student’s chances for college success.

Critics have ignored that the decline in SAT test scores represented less than one-half of a test question in reading and one-fifth of one test question in math.

Minorities have for years claimed the SAT is culturally biased and foes of standardized testing generally claim that the test is merely a snapshot of a student’s performance. They believe the test unfairly penalizes poor test takers or kids that may simply have had a bad day. Some teachers complain that they must spend time prepping students for the SAT’s, which takes time away from more valuable curricular instruction.

So, is the SAT necessary?

The answer is yes, for at least two reasons. First, the SAT is often the only objective measure by which students from different school systems may be compared. Second, the SAT does a good job of predicting college success, particularly when combined with high school grade-point average (HSGPA) and other standardized tests such as SAT II’s and AP exams.

To be widely accepted, high-stakes testssuch as the SAT should meet three criteria. The tests must be standardized, reliable and valid.

The process of defining meaningful scores by comparing those scores with a pretested representative sample of like persons is how tests are standardized.

The SAT is a standardized test.

To be reliable a test must yield consistent scores.

Researchers can check a test’s reliability by comparing retests of the same or alternate forms of a test. The higher the correlation between the test-retest, the higher the test’s reliability.

Again, the SAT is acknowledged, even by critics, to be highly reliable. Controversy surrounding the SAT usually centers around the test’s validity, specifically its predictive validity. A test is valid if it measures what it is supposed to measure or predicts what it is meant to predict.

The SAT is intended to predict freshman grades in college and more generally, college success. The College Board and independent researchers have conducted hundreds of validity studies regarding the SAT. Synthesizing those studies, Wayne Camara, vice president of research and analysis at the College Board wrote earlier this year that students’ performance on the SAT is related to “freshman and cumulative college GPA” as well as to “the need for remediation when entering college” and “persistence and graduation.”

A 2006 report commissioned by the College Board and conducted by independent investigators analyzed whether HSGPA or the SAT was a better tool with which to predict college success. The researchers found that the SAT was “as good as or better than HSGPA in predicting high levels of college success.” What’s more, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences reported that SAT scores predict performance as accurately for blacks as they do for majority applicants.

As long as the SAT remains an essential part of college admissionsit is likely to have its detractors. However, unless and until we come up with a better means for objectively differentiating applicants to our nation’s universities, we need the SAT.

Patrick Mattimore teaches AP and introductory psychology at a college preparatory school in San Francisco.

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