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SATs Not for Everyone, But Reality for Most

Like many high-school students, Danielle Rettinger took the SAT twice but still wasn't satisfied with her score. It wasn't that she had performed poorly — far from it. But she felt that the score did not measure up to the rest of her academic performance.

"I don't think it represented me as a student," she says.

That's partly why she was attracted to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Bates doesn't require applicants to submit standardized test scores at all. So when Rettinger dropped her application in the mail, she didn't have to worry that the admissions panel would dismiss her four years of academic success because of one score — a score that she says is immaterial a few months later, anyway.

"Most people don't remember their SAT scores once May comes around and you know what school you're going to. [It's] not really something that comes up," she says.

The debate about the utility and predictive abilities of standardized tests is not new. The College Board — which is responsible for creating and administering the test — notes that the SAT is an important tool for colleges as they wade through thousands of applications and try to account for varying degrees of grade inflation. 'Yardstick' is a term routinely used in the test's defense, though the College Board has shied away from that word in recent years.

The Argument Against Standardized Tests

But some critics question the power of standardized tests to uniformly assess student performance.

"What it measures is how well you take the SAT," says Robert Schaeffer of Fair Test.

Groups like Fair Test campaign against the SAT. They allege that it consistently under-predicts the performance of women, African-Americans, people whose first language isn't English and generally anyone who's not a good test-taker.

Fair Test keeps a list of schools that have dispensed with the standardized testing requirement. Currently, that list includes 734 schools, 28 of which are ranked in the top 100 liberal arts colleges in America by U.S. News and World Report.

Schaeffer says that Fair Test has a strict definition of what constitutes a non-SAT school. Inclusion on the list requires that the college be an accredited, bachelor's degree-granting institution at which a large chunk or all of the applicants aren't required to submit standardized test scores.

Mount Holyoke and the University of Texas at Austin have joined the list in recent years. Bates College made the decision to drop the SAT requirement over 20 years ago. Wylie Mitchell, the dean of admissions at Bates, says that academic performance has not changed as a result of that decision.

"We could cross the quad and four out of 10 people we meet would be non-submitters," he says, adding that the difference in graduation rates between those who submitted their scores and those who didn't is 0.1 percent.

Making the SAT optional may have made admissions fairer at Bates, but it certainly hasn't made acceptance any easier. The school's applicant pool has nearly doubled since it dropped the score-requirement, and Mitchell says that Bates does require additional writing samples and recommends a personal interview. Those who do choose to submit their score are by no means given preferential treatment. Within each student's admissions folder, the score doesn't appear until the middle third — after all the high-school academic records. That way, the score has less impact on the panel's first impression.

"I would say mostly it's a confirming credential. If it's not there, we don't think less of the student," says Mitchell. "We just move onto the next piece of information."

No SATs Means More Work for Admissions

However, taking all of the extra materials a student submits into account is time-consuming. This year, Bates expects a record number of applications; Mitchell says that admissions counselors normally wind up reading each one cover to cover, multiple times.

"If we had 16,000 applications, we'd be hard-pressed to do that," he says.

But 16,000 or more applications is the reality for many larger universities. Without the SATs as a guide, admissions officers could get buried in the avalanche of applications.

"It's just this blizzard of paper," says Ned Johnson. He runs Prep Matters, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that trains students in the art of standardized testing.

Johnson thinks it's feasible for some schools to put together an exemplary student body without standardized test scores. But he points out that as more students apply to more schools, having a score to put with a GPA can help busy admissions counselors make the most of their time. That's one reason why the majority of colleges and universities will continue to stick with standardized tests for the foreseeable future.

If You Have to Test, Choose Wisely

In recent years, the ACT — an alternative to the SAT — has become more popular and widely accepted as a college entry exam. Some students who perform poorly on the SAT find success on the ACT. Johnson says that nearly half of the students that come to Prep Matters now take the ACT, at least just to see how they do.

"It's a more straight-forward test," he says, "and some people think, maybe, that there's not as much trickery."

The ACT isn't as long as the SAT and includes fewer sections, so it's potentially less stressful for some students. A few years back, college admissions offices started taking the ACT more seriously as a substitute for the SAT.

But the SAT isn't the same as it used to be, either. Two years ago, the College Board revamped the reading comprehension questions and added a writing section. But Johnson fears the writing section may only serve to lengthen the test. He takes the exam himself, whenever possible, and admits that even he has trouble completing the timed essays — which always appear first on the exam.

"If people aren't happy with their essay at the beginning," he says, "it can rattle a student for the rest of the test."

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Thomas Pierce