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Editor's Note

Whither the SAT?

University Business, May 2009

IN LATE MARCH, FAIRFIELD UNIVERSITY (Conn.) became yet another of the 800 or so institutions to declare that they would not require the SAT as part of the admission package. While that number is slowly growing, about 72 percent of all colleges and universities still do require SAT or ACT scores.

Fairfield’s move had been in the cards for some time, suggests the school’s president, Jeffrey von Arx.

“For several years now, Fairfield University has used a holistic review process in the evaluation of our prospective students, looking at the whole person in making an admission assessment,” he said.

SAT or no SAT? Admissions directors need a better way to predict success.

The various factors that influence SAT performance, such as family income, and a booming industry dedicated to SAT coaching, have rendered the test unreliable as a predictor of student success, said von Arx.

But with record numbers of college applicants vying for limited seats, admissions directors are looking for a reliable way to put together incoming classes that will not only succeed but will also benefit the institution. The big question is, does such a way exist?

That was the focus of a two-day conference in April at Wake Forest University (N.C.) called “Rethinking Admissions.” Wake Forest, which was the first top-30 national university to make the SAT optional for applicants, brought together admissions directors and researchers from institutions around the country to discuss the role that standardized testing plays in the admissions process.

Politics and marketing have played a big role in getting colleges to choose standardized test scores over “real data,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. He moderated a panel of experts that, he said, “demonstrated over and over that high school grades and high school records are a better predictor of how students will do in college than any test score can be.”

Not surprisingly, there were opposing viewpoints.

In a presentation called “Cautions on the Use of Holistic Assessment: Don’t Shoot the Messenger!” Scott Highhouse of Bowling Green State University (Ohio) said his research suggests the holistic approach is not necessarily a better predictor of success than standardized procedures. Highhouse, a specialist in industrial-organization psychology, asked why some people believe that an intuitive approach to assessment is superior to an analytical one. The answer, he said, is that they have an erroneous belief in prediction expertise. These prediction “experts” rely on relatively few pieces of information and generally lack the insight into how they arrived at a prediction. GPAs and test scores measure a certain level of correlation, but in adding the human element to that equation the results become less reliable, he said.

Still another panel reminded attendees that while the “one size fits all” approach may not be valid with testing, neither is it valid for individual schools. Martha Allman, director of admissions at Wake Forest, led a panel that discussed “The Academic and Social Goals of Admissions.”

The takeaway: “Each college has its own priorities, its own philosophies, and its own institutional needs, and those are not the same for every college,” Allman said. “That’s really how we make decisions. That’s how one student may be admitted to one college and not another.”

Should standardized testing go by the wayside? Is the holistic approach a better predictor of student success? Let’s hear what you think.


Write to Tim Goral at