SAT Skepticism in New Form

NYU announces shift to give more options about tests, but not to go test-optional. Move comes amid increased discussion of this approach to reforming standardized exams.
April 21, 2009

When New York University officials announced Monday that they were no longer requiring all applicants to take either the SAT or ACT, they stressed that NYU was not, repeat not, going "test optional."

That's because NYU applicants will still have to submit standardized test scores under the new policy. But whereas the old policy required them to always submit either the SAT or ACT, they can now opt to skip those tests in favor of other options, such as submitting three SAT subject tests or three Advanced Placement tests. (For either of those options, one test would need to be literature or humanities and another test would need to be math or science, while the third test could be a student's choice.)

The NYU approach differs from those of many of the other colleges moving away from the SAT, which have simply dropped standardized testing from the process, or which have given that as an option to students who submit a graded high school essay or an additional writing sample or who achieve some grade-point average in high school or have an in-person interview.

NYU's announcement, however, comes amid a period of increased interest not only in moving away from the SAT, but in doing so while keeping testing in some form. Some colleges have done so for years, but this form of SAT skepticism may be on the rise. Colby College has just made a similar shift. Last week, the former president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, gave a speech to education researchers outlining the case for why the SAT subject tests or AP exams are far more reliable and more appropriate admissions tools than the main SAT (even though the university system he once led is ignoring his advice.)

And last year, when the National Association for College Admission Counseling issued a landmark report calling on colleges to reconsider their use of the SAT, the chair of the panel that wrote the report suggested interest in an approach that might involve keeping testing, but not the SAT.

The chair -- William Fitzsimmons, dean of admission and financial aid at Harvard University -- offered praise at a press briefing for standardized tests other than the main SAT. He cited the SAT subject tests, AP tests, and the International Baccalaureate test are examples. “The more curriculum-based the test, the better a predictor the test is at Harvard,” he said. And while he said he had a hard time imagining Harvard as “test optional," he could imagine it requiring different tests.

David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, said Monday that the recent interest in moving away from SAT requirements, but not standardized testing entirely, may reflect a dynamic promoted by the commission that produced his association's report. While the commission was highly critical of colleges for requiring tests without thinking about why they were doing so, the panel had strong believers in standardized tests as well.

"I think we may be escaping the polar debate of 'do we test or do we not test,' " he said, in favor of a discussion of "what is the best way to test."

While many colleges may find no reason to test, Hawkins and others said that the testing options approach may be significant for a number of reasons. Several noted NYU's size. Many of the colleges that have moved away from SAT requirements and replaced them solely with essays or interviews are small liberal arts colleges. Many larger institutions have shied away from the shift, given the volume of applications they have to review. Another key factor is that an approach like NYU's may help colleges reform their admissions processes when some constituent groups -- faculty members, trustees, presidents -- are nervous abandoning a testing requirement.

Hawkins said that in his discussions with many admissions officers, some report "a great deal of external pressure to maintain test profiles" and that the pressure comes from outside the admissions office.

At NYU, the impetus to reconsider testing came first from President John Sexton. As an undergraduate at Fordham University, Sexton was a debate coach for St. Brendan's High School, a now defunct girls' parochial school in Brooklyn, and he helped lead the debate team to championships. He noticed that the girls, who were extremely intelligent and hard working, rarely earned top scores on the SAT and he has had a skepticism about standardized testing ever since.

Barbara Hall, associate provost for enrollment management at NYU, said that shortly after she arrived there six years ago, Sexton asked her to look into whether the SAT was needed. Hall said that she believes it is important not to make such judgments quickly, but based on detailed, institutional validity studies that seek to determine whether various tests provide information that admissions officers need. Hall said that NYU's studies over multiple years found that the SAT and ACT were helpful tools, but that other tests (such as those students at NYU will now be able to take instead) could provide the same information.

"We need something that validates what we see on the transcript, which is the most important piece of paper along with the application," she said. But that need not be an SAT score. She noted that NYU this year received 37,000 applicants, from 8,000 different high schools. Although the university is committed to "holistic review" that does not rely excessively on numbers, she said, admissions officers benefit from having some testing component in an applicant file.

Hall stressed that admissions officers already evaluate scores based in part on where a student is coming from, and without any automatic cutoff. "If you are looking at someone from a high school where only 7 percent of the students go on to college, you know something about the high school and how to read the file," she said.

But while NYU reads files that way, Hall said one advantage of changing the policy is that many applicants don't realize that they can get in with scores below the university's average. As the university's SAT averages have gone up, Hall said, applications have gone down from those with lower scores, and she believes some of those people "are people we would like to admit."

Some institutions -- such as Hamilton and Middlebury Colleges -- have had variations on a policy like the one NYU adopted for some time.

At Hamilton, about two-thirds of students who are admitted still submit the SAT. But the rest use one of the other options. Hamilton did extensive research before adopting its policy, which started as an experiment, and was extended only after determining that those who didn't submit SAT scores were performing as well or better than those who did.

Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid, said that while Hamilton's research found that the SAT has "some predictive value for success" at the college, the correlation between SAT subject tests and academic success is stronger.

"I still think that standardized testing has a place in selective college admission, at least at Hamilton," said Inzer. "With fewer and fewer high schools ranking, inconsistent curricula, and what seems to be more grade inflation than ever, I like having some other measure to consider in our admission selection process. I'm not anti-testing. I'm not even anti-SAT. Rather, we want to give students a variety of ways to fulfill our testing requirement."

A spokeswoman for the College Board, asked about NYU's announcement, said that "as a matter of policy, we don’t comment publicly on specific university’s admissions policies, and we respect the right of colleges and universities to decide how to put standardized test scores and AP scores into context when making admissions decisions." The spokeswoman added, however, that "as far as the SAT itself, years of independent research and thousands of studies consistently show that the SAT is an excellent indicator of college success. When combined with high school grades, it is the single best indicator of college success."

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said that he views the NYU shift as more evidence that "SAT skepticism is spreading like wildfire." FairTest, as the group is called, has been critical of many standardized exams, not just the SAT. "We have viewed SAT-optional not as a one-size-fits-all, but as a spectrum of activity, and we applaud any institution that has moved to de-emphasize test scores," he said.

Schaeffer said that what he likes about the NYU approach is that "it allows applicants to choose the test that they believe presents their strengths."

One concern Schaeffer raised was about what may happen to the SAT subject exams if they replace the primary SAT. One problem with the main SAT is that its size has created an entire industry of coaching and test-prep centers -- entities that cost money and thus favor wealthier test-takers. While there are coaches and test-prep centers for the subject tests, the volume and intensity is nothing like that for the SAT. "If this becomes elevated, we could see an explosion of coaching and gamesmanship," he said.

Schaeffer also noted that in some cases, colleges might start by moving to a system of giving students a choice of tests, and then decide later to give students a choice on whether to take any test at all.

Connecticut College started in 1994 to give applicants the option of skipping the SAT if they instead submitted ACT scores or two of the SAT subject tests. This month it announced it is going entirely test-optional.


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