SAT Failures Renew Suspicions

New scoring problems revive old arguments against standardized testing.
March 16, 2006

As a result of thousands of miscalculated scanning errors on SATs taken by students in October, traditional critics of the exams are seizing the opportunity to blast standardized testing. College Board officials are taking the blame for the mistakes, but say that race- and gender-based arguments against the test are equally miscalculated.

“Those who are gravely suspicious of standardized testing now have another route to attack the reliability of tests like the SAT,” says William C. Hiss, vice president for external affairs at Bates College, in Maine. “People have long held the accuracy and scoring of the SAT as solid. The questions of the past had always centered on predictability, not accuracy.”

Hiss’s institution isn’t an SAT-hater. In fact, about three-quarters of its students submit the scores each year, even though Bates hasn’t required them since 1984. Bates was one of the early competitive admissions institutions to drop the SAT as a requirement.

“We might want to give the College Board a little slack,” says Hiss. “But at the same time, it’s hard not to recognize the accelerating numbers of institutions that don’t require them anymore.”

Hamilton College just announced that an experiment making the SAT optional had been a success -- and would now be the college's policy for good. Hamilton found that the policy helped attract more minority applicants -- and that those students who didn't submit SAT scores fared slightly better at the college than those who did.

According to FairTest, a standardized testing watchdog group, more than 700 institutions do not require the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions. Robert A. Schaeffer, director of the organization, argues that administrators have chosen to deemphasize the tests because “the tests don’t work.” He asserts that many individuals and researchers have found racial and gender biases in the questions of the SAT in particular. 

“This College Board scenario is the one that may break the camel’s back,” he says. “The scope of this scoring error is unprecedented to my knowledge.”  College administrators nationwide learned only last week that the scores of 4,000 students who took the test last October were miscalculated, even though the College Board had learned of the situation in December. This week, the company announced that another 1,600 tests had been were omitted from examination and must be reviewed. Newspapers have been filled with stories of confused students and angry college admissions officers. 

Schaeffer predicts that the coming years will see an uptick in the number of institutions that will eliminate standardized testing requirements. His organization, which has faced financial challenges in recent years, has received an outpouring of public donations since the College Board's latest problems surfaced, he says.    

Phyllis Rosser, director of the Equality in Testing Project, has argued for decades that gender and racial biases exist within standardized testing. “Certain questions favor one sex over the other,” she says. “The same with race, and the College Board knows this.” 

“Math scores are really where women fare worse, but they get better math grades in high school,” says Rosser. “If they’re going to be used, these tests have to be made more predictive.”

Rosser argues that the scoring miscalculations should make people realize that standardized testing is not infallible. “We don’t know that this hasn’t happened in years past,” she says. “I think College Board was going along thinking everything was fine.”

Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT information services at the College Board, says that both the College Board and Pearson Educational Management, the vendor that grades the SAT, are “equally to blame” for this year’s miscalculations. “The worst thing about all this is the timing for students,” he says. “It’s already a very stressful time for them, and all I can say is that we alerted them as quickly as we could.”    

But O’Reilly insists that the renewed attacks from people like Schaeffer and Rosser are misguided. “Critics who say the test is biased against minorities should look at the results of minority students in college,” he says. “The SAT actually overpredicts how well they will do when they get to college. It’s not biased simply because scores tend to be lower for one group than another.”

Rather, says O’Reilly, the real problem probably lies in the teaching of minority and female students in elementary and secondary education.

Still, increasing numbers of administrators are making research-based arguments for a shift away from standardized testing. “High-stakes standardized tests such as the SAT have assumed a central role in the admissions process disproportionate to their value,” Joanne V. Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, said in a Los Angeles Times editorial this week. “This test falls far short of predicting academic or career potential or a host of important aptitudes, such as curiosity, motivation, persistence, leadership, creativity, civic engagement and social conscience.”

In 2001, Mount Holyoke administrators chose to make the SAT optional for admission.

“The SAT might have made sense when it was developed in the 1920s, when higher education was an elitist proposition and the college admission pipeline led a relatively homogeneous population of young adults into a similarly uni-dimensional set of colleges and universities,” Creighton wrote. “But U.S. secondary education today is a multilingual, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse enterprise, and so too are the 3,000-odd colleges and universities to which high school students aspire.”

Creighton said that her institution has been studying the effects of making the SAT optional. To date, she indicated that there has been no meaningful difference in academic performance between students who did not submit scores and those who did.

Hiss says Bates College has come to similar conclusions based on research. “Optional testing has profoundly changed Bates,” he says. “We doubled our applicant pool. We are more diverse, come from more states and countries, and from wider socioeconomic backgrounds. And I think more colleges are going to follow our lead.”


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