After the SAT

As the University of California considers dropping the test, admissions directors of two colleges talk about what happened after they made it optional.

Published February 22, 2001 8:21PM (EST)

Throughout its history, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) has collected more nasty names than a schoolyard bully: It's been called classist, racist and sexist. The mother of all standardized tests, it has been derided for class-based analogies that require students to know what a yacht is in relation to a regatta, and it's been accused of preferential treatment of the rich and white at the expense of everyone else.

Despite its critics, the SAT has maintained its status as the college entrance deal-breaker. In this role, it has spawned an entire industry of expensive tutors and a generation of stressed-out students, parents and teachers.

The makers of the SAT have subjected it to numerous tinkerings and reparations; it has been revised and rehabilitated.

But a few presidents and admissions directors of certain colleges and universities have decided to make their admissions policy SAT-optional.

On Sunday, University of California president Richard C. Atkinson announced that he will move to eliminate the SAT as a requirement of admission to the eight U.C. campuses that take undergraduate students. (This year, 91,904 high school seniors applied for admission to U.C.)

This is big news. The prestigious U.C. system is one of the largest state university systems in the country. Several of its campuses -- Berkeley and UCLA among them -- are considered to be on par with the top Ivy League universities in the country, with Nobel Prize-winning faculty members and high-achieving students.

In part, Atkinson's decision may have much to do with California's recent decision to ban affirmative action in the college admission process. Several years ago, a faculty committee recommended an SAT-optional policy to increase enrollment of black and Hispanic students in the system.

Although nearly 90 percent of colleges and universities require the SAT for admission, several other highly selective colleges -- Bates, Bowdoin, Mount Holyoke -- have already made the SAT optional in their application processes.

In small, selective colleges such as these, the admissions officers have the time and the manpower to carefully evaluate each applicant on an individual basis. They rely on close scrutiny of each student's transcripts, essays, recommendations and personal qualities.

But it remains to be seen whether dropping the SAT as an entrance requirement, which works so well for some small colleges, can translate into a successful policy for a behemoth like the U.C. system, which already uses a complex numerical system (i.e. weighted GPA, plus SAT scores) to rate each candidate. It's hard to imagine that admissions officers will suddenly have the time for close scrutiny of student essays and personal statements.

Atkinson has not yet said how the system will manage without SAT scores as a necessary variable in admissions. The system will not drop the requirement, which is subject to faculty approval, right away.

Admissions officers from two SAT-optional colleges -- Richard Steele of Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college in Maine, and Diane Anci of Mount Holyoke, a small liberal arts women's college in Holyoke, Mass. -- have differing views of the admissions process without SAT scores. Bowdoin was one of the first colleges to abandon the SAT requirement in 1969; Mount Holyoke just changed their SAT policy last year.

Both Steele and Anci talk about the philosophical underpinnings of their schools' decisions to make the SAT optional, and discuss the criteria that they use to judge applicants in the absence of standardized test scores.

Richard Steele, dean of admissions and financial aid, Bowdoin College

Bowdoin first eliminated the SAT as a requirement for admission in 1969. What has been the effect of the decision?

I have mixed feelings about it. It has worked well for Bowdoin, but it has become harder and harder as we have become more popular. Right now, we have about 4,500 applicants for 435 places. And even that is a challenge, although our staff has expanded. Thirty years ago, it was easier to evaluate student ability and achievement than it is today.

One thing that has changed is that so many schools have abandoned class rank. In 1969 and throughout the '70s, most schools did look at a weighted class rank. That -- how well a student performed in a challenging program -- was a very good predictor of success. Usually, it was a better predictor of success than test scores. Now, many schools have moved away from looking at class rank -- though it may swing back in places like California and Texas.

Does Bowdoin look at class rank when it's available? What do you look at in its absence?

Oh, yes, we consider class rank if we have it. I think we do an excellent job of predicting success, but it involves an awful lot more detective work. We spend an incredible amount of time looking at school profiles, looking at thousands of different school systems across the country, to put each student's achievement in context. To do that, we must understand the grading system -- grade distribution, how much grade inflation or deflation there is at a particular school.

Obviously, we place more and more emphasis on recommendations. In the absence of test scores, we need the other information that allows us to successfully predict achievement.

Thirty years ago, the argument for schools looking at the SAT was that it would lead to admissions based on merit, as opposed to admissions based on privilege.

I'm not one who advocates abandoning testing for all schools. It's not something I go out on the stump to help promote. I feel that it works for us, and I know why it works for us. I think as soon as it didn't work for Bowdoin, we would think seriously about moving back to requiring the SAT for all students.

As it works out, most of our candidates do submit their test results, and we find it somewhat helpful. I think we use the test properly: We use it as a supplement to what we see in the rest of the file. I am not one who says that the tests are bad or flawed. None of them are perfect, but I do think that, in general, they are helpful. People are sometimes surprised to hear me take that position.

So you don't require applicants to submit test scores, but you do take them into consideration if they are submitted. Let's say you have two candidates who are more or less equal, but one has submitted test scores and the other has not. How often do you find yourself using the test scores as a tiebreaker?

I don't think of them that way. We often work with very successful candidates who, for one reason or another, choose not to submit their test scores. We don't assume that because a candidate has not submitted their test scores that their scores are weak. Some do it on philosophical grounds and say that they want to be evaluated on the strength of their performance and so forth.

We have had to develop, in fairness, a pretty elaborate rating system. When we run our validity studies -- which we do fairly regularly -- we try to work from earned GPA here at Bowdoin and work backwards. We do the research to see if we predicted as well for those who submitted their scores as we did for those who did not. We keep testing that.

What we find is that our rating system is by far the best predictor of college success. Every candidate goes through two different readers, and then a committee discussion, so it doesn't just come down to a decision that I would make singlehandedly between one candidate with SAT scores and another without. This system factors in all kinds of criteria: recommendations, writing ability, test scores if we have them and so forth.

Fortunately, we've been very pleased with that result. That's by far our best predictor. If we add in the verbal and the math SAT scores, we gain a little, but not a lot. It's certainly not useless information, but we have other predictors that are better.

How does your office handle such a personalized system of admissions?

We can look at our applicants in great detail, in part, because we only have 4,500 applications. It just about kills us to do those, but we can handle it.

When I was at Duke, we had over 15,000 applicants. I felt, at Duke, that having the test scores helped. It was one of the factors we looked at, but it didn't dominate.

I think it's going to be quite interesting if the U.C. system does this. On the one hand, I would say that they are giving up one of the time-proven predictors that, if used properly -- and I think most admissions officers do use them properly -- has been valuable.

California may have an advantage in knowing the California school systems very well, but for national universities, you are dealing with thousands of different school systems that change overnight. I think it's been very helpful to have test scores.

Do you think Bowdoin would ever go back to using test scores?

It would be a huge decision for us to mandate going back to tests. It's a symbol for Bowdoin of our concern for the total human being that we give the student autonomy over the process, which is truth in advertising for us. We give our students incredible freedom to tailor their program. So even this early sign -- you decide if you want your scores to count or not -- is a symbol of the respect we have for the student's own judgment. But I can't say that it isn't hard to do. As the rank in class has disappeared, as we've had more grade inflation, it has forced the staff to do more and more careful evaluations of profiles, and to be sure that you are selfishly identifying the real talent.

One of the arguments given by the U.C. system is that they believe eliminating the SAT requirement will lead to a higher enrollment by Hispanic, black and low-income students, who have historically received lower scores as a group on the SAT. In your experience, are certain students less likely to submit SAT scores?

I don't see any clear patterns there, but a generalization I would make is that it's true that the students coming from very unsophisticated, poorly financially supported school districts tend to have depressed scores. You expect it. If you are looking at individuals -- whether they are Hispanic or Caucasian -- you switch gears and you say, here is someone who is a first-generation college candidate who has had very little opportunity to discuss books, or get into debates at the dinner table, who has also had less sophistication in terms of math preparation, and has had no funds to take prep courses. You look at the achievement for this student who is working 30 hours a week, carrying this program, who writes well, and who is dying for the education. That's the way we get there. Diversity is very important to us.

Diane Anci, dean of admissions and financial aid, Mount Holyoke College

When did Mount Holyoke decide to eliminate the SAT as a requirement for admission?

This is our first year working without SATs. Our decision was finalized late last spring. We are in the process of admitting our first class without SAT scores. At this point, it appears as if about 17.5 percent of the pool has exercised their right not to submit their scores.

What were some of the philosophical considerations behind Mount Holyoke's decision to make the SAT optional in the application process?

We found ourselves increasingly preoccupied with our students' and their families' preoccupation with the exam, and preparation for the exam. We began to imagine a world in which the young women who would consider a place like Mount Holyoke would take the time and the energy and the money that they would have devoted to test preparation, and give that time, energy, and money to a special talent or passion. Ultimately, we thought they would have a more well-rounded, satisfying high school career and potentially be better applicants to college.

We thought that given the things Mount Holyoke values, this is more in line with who we are. We consider the whole student. We look very, very closely at the student transcript -- not just at the bottom line, their GPA and class rank -- but the program they selected and the kinds of subject matter and skills they have gotten from their program. We pay very close attention to the reflections students have on what they have learned, whether it's course selection, or how they spend their free time.

Consequently, the writing portion of the application has always been extremely important to us. We are a place which requires a fair amount of writing from students. We ask for two short-answer questions, and they can choose one of four really interesting essay questions, and then they need to submit a graded writing sample, including their teachers' comments.

What kind of research did you conduct before making your decision to eliminate the SAT requirement?

We pulled up a random sample of applications that had been read the previous year. They were all applications that had admissions ratings assigned to them. We eliminated all evidence of standardized test scores. We reread those applications, and in 80 percent of the cases, we came up with the exact same rating we came up with the year before; in 20 percent of the cases, we came up with a rating that was just one rating away. It confirmed what we already knew: We can do our job successfully without relying on standardized test scores.

We have a collaboration with the Mellon Foundation where for five years, scores will be optional, and we will conduct quite a bit of research on the submitters and the non-submitters and their success at Mount Holyoke and beyond. At this point, I can report to you in only anecdotal ways, but at some point, this data will be available.

We are probably four-fifths of the way through the application process now, and I've not had one staff member express any concern or challenge about the fact that in 17.5 percent of his or her folders, there are no SAT scores. It's been relatively easy for us.

Given the fact that students are given the option to submit SAT scores, isn't it still true that a student who does wish to go through expensive coaching programs and inflate her SAT scores can still have an advantage over another student who can't afford coaching and may have depressed scores?

No, I think it's important to realize that there isn't one single piece of information that rules a candidate in or out. So if you were to tell me, "I have a double 800 on my SAT, will I get into Mount Holyoke?" I would say, "Congratulations on your fine achievement. Your scores are well within our range. But no, I can't tell you for sure whether you are in or out."

And if you were to come up to me and say, "I really want to go to Mount Holyoke, but let me whisper my scores to you -- I have a 495! Should I not even submit?" I would say something like, "Well, your scores are not within our range, but let's talk about your high school program, let's talk about your work in and out of the classroom, your interest in Mount Holyoke and your ideas about your future."

I have had many students come up to me and say, "My scores are not within your range, but I am the valedictorian of my high school class." In that case, it may in fact be a good idea for them to not report their scores. If they feel like the scores don't do them justice, and they feel that it's going to somehow weigh them down, then they now have the right to not submit.

There are a lot of students I've spoken to who are very high scoring test-takers who have made the decision to not have us view their scores because, on principle, they like what we have to say. Despite the fact that they were successful in those three hours on a Saturday morning, they really feel that what they have done for three years in high school, in and out of the classroom, is a much better representation of who they are. And on principle, they are leaving their scores out.

Someone who is inadmissible is inadmissible whether they have great scores or bad scores.

What makes someone inadmissible?

There are lots of admissible students who don't get in. We are privileged in that we have a very, very, very self-selecting applicant pool. Only 4 percent of young women in the U.S. today who are attending college are attending a women's college. And we lost a few women's colleges last year. Choosing a women's college today is not a conventional choice, so for the young woman who submits an application and ultimately chooses a place like Mount Holyoke, this has been a well thought out, conscientious decision to get themselves into our pipeline. People don't say, "I'm going to throw in an application to Holyoke and see what happens," as people may do with, say, an Ivy like Harvard.

A lot of the critiques about the SAT have been that they discriminate against students who don't come from a traditional college preparatory background. What kinds of criteria do you use to judge applicants who come from different backgrounds -- a poor, rural school district vs. Exeter, for example?

There are so many ways you can learn about the personal characteristics of the applicant. In an interview, say, you can get more information about the candidate's background and interest in a place like Mount Holyoke. In the case of a student who applies without standardized test scores, what we are inclined to do is to take a very, very close look at the transcript.

We do read geographically. For example, I read applications from Southern California, New York City and Africa. Presumably, I know more than any other person in the office about these areas. It is the expectation that when you are reading about schools in your territory, you know about these schools, or you are willing to learn about them in order to help you make an admissions decision. We are avid readers of high school profiles that typically accompany every transcript.

And we rely quite heavily on student writing. We do require three distinctly different kinds of writing. You can often tell immediately if a student has been coached on their writing. Because they typically don't get coaching or help on the two short-answer questions. And so if there is a big difference in the quality of the writing between the short-answer questions and the long essay, that's helpful information. And the graded paper is remarkably helpful. If she got an A on the paper, and yet there is no organizing thought and it's poorly written and the punctuation is all over the place, and the teacher is giving the student rave reviews, then it tells you something about what is happening at the school.

In that case, it's very much about determining potential. In an effort to create a community that is truly diverse, we might accept a student who is less sophisticated at this stage of the game, if we can determine in fact that she has great potential. That is where letters of recommendation can be helpful, or the writing, what the student tells us in her essay about what she wants.

Have you or any other school you know of ever considered eliminating SAT scores altogether?

I must confess that that did come up in some of our forums last year, and I can't remember exactly how we answered it. There are some students who are very proud of their SAT scores. This is not an attack, on Mount Holyoke's part, against the College Board -- where we would feel some reason to say, "OK, we're going to get rid of this altogether." But I would imagine during the course of the next five years, that would be a question that would come up on the table, and that we would explore the possibilities.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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