October 16, 2006
The last few weeks witnessed three crucial developments in the practice of admitting students at America’s colleges and universities. Two leading higher educational institutions announced, within days of each other, that they would stop early admissions beginning next fall to make the process fairer to disadvantaged students and less stressful for all applicants. More discreetly, but of no less importance, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a depressing report finding that the labyrinthine complexity of the federal financial aid system “has the unfortunate effect of discouraging some low-income students from even applying to college” in the first place. But equally newsworthy was the announcement that the initial results from the recently redesigned Scholastic Aptitude Test saw the nation’s average test score drop to its lowest point in 31 years.
The inauguration of the revamped exam should be accompanied by a robust debate over whether the SAT I, which purports to evaluate a test-takers “reasoning abilities” (rather than any specific knowledge) provides a useful assessment of a high school senior’s readiness to undertake college work. Defenders of the test’s utility argue that in a nation where curricula and grading standards vary widely between high schools, the SAT provides a useful common standard against which a college can compare applicants from different high schools.
An Algebra I course at a school in Texas might be more extensive and rigorous than the same class at a school in Massachusetts. A student who earns an “A” in the former therefore shows more achievement than one who earns the same grade in the latter, but an admissions officer cannot understand the difference of merit between these similar grades without a normalizing evaluative variable, like the SAT I. In this sense, as President Colin S. Diver of Reed College recently argued, the test helps mitigate the disparities engendered by systemic inequalities in American secondary education. Moreover, these advocates say, the exam’s evaluation of “reasoning skills” provides the fairest and most accurate prediction of how well a student will perform in the first year of college, since it tests the skills necessary for success in higher education no matter what area the student chooses to concentrate upon.