Renewed Debate on SAT and Wealth

September 14, 2012

Students from wealthier families, on average, perform better on the SAT than those from low-income families. And that reality has led some colleges to question the fairness of relying on the test in admissions decisions.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science, however, says that the predictive value of the SAT is strong, especially when used in conjunction with high school grades, and that the use of the SAT has equal predictive accuracy for students from across a range of socioeconomic groups. Such a finding -- based, as the research is, on multiple, large datasets -- could be a strong counter to those who argue for making the SAT optional.

But skeptics of the SAT are questioning the study because of the source of its funding (the College Board) and for leaving out what they consider key factors that may explain its findings in ways that don't remove the concerns about fairness.

The study is based on three large datasets, including one of more than 143,000 students at a diverse group of 110 colleges and universities. Another dataset looked at information from 41 institutions, while yet another looked at data from University of California campuses. The data covered SAT scores (from before and after the introduction of the writing test and various other changes), socioeconomic status, and academic performance in the first year of college (which is the measure the SAT was designed to predict).

The key finding was that SAT scores combined with high school grades were predictive of first-year academic success for all socioeconomic statuses. Further, the SAT adds predictive accuracy on top of grades for all groups, the study found. To the extent the colleges are more likely to admit students from higher socioeconomic groups (which the study does not dispute), that is because those students are more likely to apply. The study found that the socioeconomic status range of enrolled students mirrored the range in the applicant pool.

As a result, the study said, there is no institutional "barrier" to admission for these students, only the realities of economic inequality in the United States that result in many low-income people never applying to college.

"The finding that SAT scores provide incremental validity in predicting freshman grades, beyond the predictive validity contributed by high school grades, and that this is true even when controlling for [socioeconomic status] supports the usefulness of the SAT for predicting first-year academic performance," says the conclusion of the paper. The authors are a team at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, led by Paul R. Sackett, a professor of psychology (who also works as a consultant to the College Board).

In an interview, Sackett said that many people believe that the predictive value of the SAT "disappears" when taken by low-income individuals, and that this belief raises many concerns about the test. But he said that the new study debunks that view and shows that the predictive value "isn't even diluted." This suggests, he said, that the SAT reflects "real differences in learning and skill acquisition," not socioeconomic status.

College Board officials praised the study.

Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, executive director for communications at the College Board, said via e-mail that "this paper, published in one of the highest ranked empirical journals in psychology, represents a major contribution to the public’s understanding of the SAT by clarifying a number of commonly held misconceptions that have been used to undermine the value of the test."

The Students Who Don't Apply

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing (a group that is highly critical of the SAT and standardized testing generally), questioned the findings of the new study. He noted that numerous other studies have found that high school grades in college preparatory courses are the best single predictor of first-year success. And he said it was wrong to draw conclusions on the impact of the SAT on low-income students by looking only at those who take the test and who enroll in college.

He noted that College Board officials once talked about how the SAT encourages a "great sorting" of students. Schaeffer also cited the experience of colleges that have dropped SAT requirements and have almost uniformly reported that they then attract more applicants from minority and low-income groups. SAT and ACT requirements "deter many low-income and minority students from ever applying," he said. So the way to promote the enrollment of such students is through "eliminating that hurdle," not describing the SAT as fair to all groups.

In response, Sackett said that he couldn't analyze the predictive value of the SAT for students who never took the test, and that he did not know if any of the colleges in the study were test-optional. (The data that didn't come from the University of California came from the College Board, which provided general information about the colleges, but not their names.)

Also criticizing the study was Saul Geiser, a research associate of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written extensively about testing issues (strongly raising questions in the past about the validity of the SAT). Geiser said that the published paper was very similar to a version that had been submitted to another journal that had asked him to review the work. Geiser raised many questions about the paper, which did not run in that journal, he said. (UPDATE/CORRECTION: The original version of this article quoted Geiser as saying that he knew two journals had rejected the article, but he found after publication that this applied only to one journal.)

In a copy of his review of the earlier version of the work, which Geiser provided and said was still valid, he argued that the paper seems to assume that colleges treat the SAT the same way with regard to all applicants, when that is not the case.

"The reason that SES differences between applicants and admitted students are muted is not because SAT scores have little adverse effect on low-SES students, but because colleges and universities have introduced compensatory policies to admit more low-income students," Geiser wrote. He said that much research -- such as a 2007 study that was published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association -- shows that "it is precisely because SAT scores have come to play such a prominent role in contemporary admissions that American colleges and universities have been forced to adopt compensatory policies in order to offset their disparate impact."

Geiser's review goes on to question whether the journal should publish research financed by the College Board on a topic on which the College Board has a huge stake. "Whether or not there is an actual conflict of interest, the appearance of a conflict is inevitable," he wrote.

Sackett said that there was no interference at all by the College Board with his research or findings. And he said that the contract for the support provided by the College Board specifically required a hands-off approach from the organization to the actual research. Asked if the paper had been rejected by other journals, he declined to comment.

In the paper itself, Sackett discloses the College Board support and his consulting work for it. But the news release issued by the Association for Psychological Science (the publisher of the journal) made no reference to the College Board's financing of the research. The association declined to comment on why that was the case.



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