For nearly 100 years, the SAT has been used by universities in their admissions process, but a new report out of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley argues that the SAT is an inferior predictor of student success in college.
The report, “Back to Basics: In Defense of Achievement in College Admissions,” contends that admissions criteria which assess student mastery of curriculum, such as grades and achievement tests, are better indicators of a student’s success in college than criteria that assess a student’s ability to learn, like the SAT. The report was the conclusion of a series of studies conducted by the University of California over the course of 10 years.
“In studies of almost 125,000 students entering UC between 1996 and 2001, my colleagues and I found that the strongest predictor of college success was high school grades in college preparatory classes,” said Saul Geiser, author of the report. “SAT scores are based on a single sitting of three to four hours, whereas high school GPA is based on repeated sampling of student performance over several years.”
The SAT was first created with the intention to level the playing field for college applicants, according to the report. Instead of testing knowledge about specific subjects like more traditional board exams do, the SAT tests one’s capacity to learn. It was thought this would give promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance of gaining admission.
Geiser, director of research and evaluation for admissions and outreach at the UC Office of the President, said that while the intention of the SAT is to inject more equality in the admissions process, it falls short of this goal.
“Our data showed that the SAT had more of an adverse impact on poor and minority applicants than traditional measures of academic achievement,” Geiser said in the report. “Compared to high school GPA, for example, SAT scores were much more closely correlated with student’s socioeconomic characteristics.”
UC admissions officers face a challenge in determining which students are most likely to succeed at a UC school without disadvantaging students from lower-income backgrounds, said Susan Wilbur, director for undergraduate admissions for the University of California.
“There is a rich body of data that shows student performance on college admissions tests is highly correlated with income and other indicators of advantage like parental education, high school attended, etc,” Wilbur said. “However, it also is true that all indicators of academic achievement are correlated with family income and other indicators of advantage.”
In 2005, College Board, under pressure from the UC system, made changes to the format of the SAT in an effort to better predict student success in their freshman year of college. One of the biggest changes was the addition of an essay section, which College Board hoped would better evaluate their readiness for the rigors of college writing.
However, there has been much debate over whether or not the new SAT is an improvement. College Board reported in a study released last month that the changes made to the SAT in 2005 “did not substantially change how well the test predicts first-year college performance.”
Despite the study’s findings, College Board maintains that “the SAT is still the most reliable test in an era when grade inflation at the high school level is a major problem” and that grades and SAT scores – used together – are the best predictor of college success.
“Next to high school GPA, the SAT writing examination is the strongest predictor of academic success at UC,” Wilbur said. “[UC’s] experience is that it strengthened the SAT reasoning test.”
Geiser said the results of his study support the idea that when it comes to admissions, performance is more important than potential.
“The UC findings lend strong support for the traditional view that demonstrated achievement, rather than potential ability, should be the decisive consideration in college admissions,” he said. “College admissions may never be perfectly fair, but it can be fairer than it is today if we judge students on what really matters – demonstrated achievement as reflected in the high school record and performance on subject tests.”
ERICA LEE can be reached at email@example.com.