SAT has little predictive value

At first glance, defenders of the SAT and ACT seem to have a solid case.  They say schools vary so widely in their grading that it’s impossible to know with any certainty who will be successful in handling college-level work. That’s why these two measurement icons must not be eliminated (“The War on Admissions Testing,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2).

But that’s not what the best evidence shows.  In 1984, Bates College decided to engage in a pioneering experiment.  It made the submission of SAT scores optional for admission.  In 2004, it announced the results of its 20-year study.  It found virtually no differences in the four-year academic performance and on-time graduation rates of 7,000 submitters and nonsubmitters.  Since then, hundreds of other colleges and universities have followed suit, with similar results.

The roots of the controversy go back to the start of World War I when the country was faced with the urgent need to quickly identify officer candidates.  Finding itself ill equipped for the task at hand, the military turned to the American Psychological Association for help. Working out of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, a special committee came up with the Army Alpha, which allowed recruits to be ranked according to their intellectual abilities.

In all, some 1,750,000 men the Army Alpha.  It proved so successful that its designers decided to apply the same approach to whatever subject content was being measured.  This eventually led to the design of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 by psychologist Carl Brigham, who believed that it assessed innate ability.  But there is a distinct difference between an aptitude test and an achievement test.  Although they may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

Unfortunately, this distinction is completely lost in the continuing controversy over the use of both the SAT and ACT.  To most people, a test is a test.  That’s a misleading conclusion, as the experience of so many colleges and universities today shows.

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2 Replies to “SAT has little predictive value”

  1. Bates is a small private (and expensive, I think) liberal arts college in backwoods Maine. Not sure it’s applicant pool is representative of the applicant pools at other colleges — particularly the large competitive state universities.

    I am familiar with admissions issues in Virginia. The state has two top-ranked academic colleges — UVA and William & Mary. Competition to get into these two colleges for in-state students is intense. Northern Virginia high schools are, on average, much more academically demanding than high schools in the rest of the state (tracking parents’ SES levels, which are, on average, much higher in Northern Virginia than in the rest of the state).

    If UVA and William & Mary eliminated the SAT and relied exclusively on high school grades to determine an applicant’s intellectual ability, this would put the Northern Virginia applicants at a substantial disadvantage. Both our kids went to UVA from Northern Virginia. Their anecdotal personal experiences strongly support the conclusion that UVA students with above-average grades from Northern Virginia high schools were generally much stronger academically in college than students with the very highest grades from high schools in the rest of the state.

    Certainly, college admissions offices could eliminate the SAT/ACT and then attempt to discount an applicant’s high school GPA to reflect how academically demanding the applicant’s high school was. However, this approach would unfairly discriminate against the extremely talented applicant from an academically-weak high school — that is, w/o the SAT/ACT, the admissions office would treat this applicant as if he/she were only somewhat talented and had gotten top grades because the high school was academically weak.

    Keep the SAT/ACT.


  2. Labor Lawyer: The history of the SAT shows that it confuses aptitude and achievement tests. Changes in the name of the test itself is evidence of that. The primary purpose of the test is to rank applicants. It can only do so if it engineers score spread. If the test were loaded up with items measuring the most important material effectively taught in schools, scores would likely be clumped together, making distinctions among test takers impossible. To avoid that possibility, designers include many items that reflect what students bring to class rather than what they learn in class. So in the final analysis, the SAT is an IQ test rather than a measure of learning.


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