Commentary | Education

Lessons—The SAT Debate Ought to Be Broader

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


The SAT debate ought to be broader

By  Richard Rothstein

A month ago, when Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California, proposed dropping the SAT requirement for applicants, he opened a vigorous national debate on whether College Board exams properly identify students who will do well in college.

But by focusing on how to predict academic success, the discussion has mostly skipped over a deeper issue: How do we define broader goals for college graduates? Are scores on any high school test the best way to identify young people most likely to achieve those goals? “The Shape of the River,” a 1998 book by William Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, argued against academic performance alone and for “contributions that individuals make throughout their lives” as the aim of college admissions.

Most people probably agree that universities should train students for economic, political, intellectual and moral leadership. These require academic skills, but also more.

Dr. Atkinson noted that the SAT’s test of mental agility had little to do with mastery of course work and that it distorted lives of adolescents who buy costly preparation packages and agonize over tiny score changes. Instead, he proposed to find tests more aligned with secondary-school curriculums. On these, students could excel from more conscientious high school study.

But small advantages in scores on any test may not be the way to predict college graduates’ community service or business creativity.

White students have higher average SAT scores than blacks. Yet a Harvard School of Public Health team found that white college students were three times as likely to engage in binge drinking. In itself, propensity for alcoholism should not disqualify youths for college, but it is not entirely irrelevant. Higher SAT scores don’t predict responsibility; tests aligned with high school curriculums may not do better.

A study at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that students who sacrificed to attend — going into debt or taking part-time jobs — were more engaged in academic, cultural and volunteer activities than affluent students with higher SAT scores. Dr. Bowen and Dr. Bok reached similar conclusions.

Surely college students need academic competence. But a qualifying level can be set by a passing score on standardized exams. Beyond that, score gradations are less important.

Little is known about forecasting college or lifetime success; research predicts only freshman grades. Students with higher SAT scores do slightly better in freshman year than those with lower, but the margin is small. Better high school grades also predict slightly higher freshman grades. Scores on College Board subject tests (called SAT II exams) do the same. The three do slightly better in combination.

But nobody knows if these can predict later college grades or completion, or character, creativity, civic engagement, religious leadership or business acumen.

The University of Texas now admits students in the top 10 percent of high school classes, without regard to SAT scores; Florida admits the top 20 percent. That approach tries to ensure that entering classes include at least some top students from mostly minority schools.

  Opponents condemn such percentage plans, because one school’s A may denote less knowledge than another’s B. Yet this valid criticism fails to ask what qualities of ambition, discipline and sacrifice take youths to the top ranks of troubled schools. Might immigrant 10-percenters from El Paso be better bets for leadership than lower-ranked students from Dallas, though the latter do better on tests?

The University of California has a similar admissions policy, for the top 4 percent. With the university taking three times that many graduating high school seniors from within the state, the plan has barely affected admissions; SAT scores still play a big role. Instead of calling for a better standardized test, Dr. Atkinson might have urged including a larger percentage of top-ranked students. A gradual expansion could be monitored to be certain admitted students can do college work.

Of course, it would be wrong for colleges to drop the preparation of academic stars as their exclusive goal for the sake of adopting an equally extreme notion that they should produce only moral, political or economic leaders. Universities’ multifaceted roles are what make admissions complex.

Dr. Atkinson stepped gingerly beyond a narrow goal of seeking better academic merit, saying campuses should also seek students who make great progress in troubled circumstances. But he did not say whether such students are desirable because they will get better grades or because they have other strengths.

The California proposal invites a broader discussion of universities’ mission, and which traits predict high school applicants’ contributions to it. That discussion should begin.

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