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Editor's Note

The SAT is Dead; Long Live the SAT

University Business, Aug 2008

EVERY MONTH, IT SEEMS, WE HEAR OF ANOTHER institution deciding to make the SAT an optional part of the admissions process. Other schools combine SAT scores with a student's high school records to get a more rounded picture. Still other colleges have decided to eliminate the test altogether.

The SAT, which was introduced in 1901, has become so entrenched as part of the process of going to college that a multibillion dollar industry has grown up around it. Test preparation books, high-priced coaches, weekend workshops, practice tests, and more all claim to give students an advantage when they take the test.

That's part of the argument of those who would prefer to see the SAT go away--high scores show little more than that the student had prepared well for the test.

SAT opponents say high scores show little more than that students had prepared well for the test.

But how do you get rid of it? No one seems to know. If, for example, a decision was made that no school would use the test after 2015, would the classes of 2013 and 2014 decide to wait until after the deadline passes to apply to college? What impact would that have on tuition dependent institutions? For better or worse, the SAT is probably not going anywhere, anytime soon.

But that's no reason the SAT can't be improved so that its results have real meaning. And it has.

Some years ago I became a fan of William Zinsser, whose books on writing inspired me and countless others. In his book Writing to Learn, Zinsser described the concept of writing across the curriculum, then being tested at Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.). The idea is that writing should be an integral part of every discipline, whether it is history, science, or even physical education. It's one thing, Zinsser said, for a math student to be able to solve an equation, but it is quite another for that student to be able to convey in writing how the answer was reached so that another person, unfamiliar with the subject, might learn as well. Such an approach would demonstrate not only learning but also understanding.

At the time, as an idealistic college graduate, I tried to introduce Zinsser's book to my local board of education. Sadly, their agenda, then as now, was more devoted to budget questions than possible tweaks to the curriculum. So three years ago, when The College Board introduced SAT II, with its increased emphasis on writing, I had high hopes. Would these new tests be a more accurate reflection of learning?

Last month, The College Board released new "SAT Validity Studies" (available for download from that support the argument that the expanded writing section of the test is more predictive of a student's first-year grades in college than the math or critical reading sections. These conclusions are also supported elsewhere.

According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, an independent study by researchers at The University of Georgia Terry College of Business shows the SAT writing section predicts more than just first-year college grades. According to the study, for every 100 points more students scored on the 800-point writing test, first-year students gained .07 on a 4-point GPA scale.

"Since the SAT added writing, high schools in this nation are focusing more on teaching writing," said Laurence Bunin, senior vice president for the SAT, in the article. "That's really important for students--for their readiness for college and success in college."

I can't agree more.


Write to Tim Goral at