The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five things to know about the SAT

These were written by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping the misuse of standardized tests.

Here are five of the most common myths about the exam:

1. The SAT measures what you need to know in college. The SAT is largely a fast-paced, multiple-choice guessing game, which has little to do with the skills necessary for college success. It tests a narrow range of techniques, mainly how quickly a student can choose among answers without thinking deeply about any of them. For example, research has shown that over 40% of reading comprehension items – far better than chance — can be answered correctly without even looking at the passage. Seventy percent of a test-taker’s score on the so-called “Writing” exam is based on multiple-choice copy-editing questions. The brief essay can be beaten by long-winded, formulaic submissions that may be flawed factually and logically. The SAT cannot measure many of the important qualities students need in college (or life). These include strategic reasoning, higher order thinking skills, experience, persistence and creativity.

2. The SAT is still necessary because of the variability in high school grades. In fact, high school grades – even with all the variability between classrooms – are more accurate and fairer predictors of undergraduate success. Even the SAT’s promoters admit that it underpredicts college grades for females, students whose home language is not English, and older applicants. These groups now make up more than half of all college applicants.

3. At least the SAT gives all students an equal shot at college admission. Because of the way the test is constructed, its rewards for strategic guessing, its highly speeded pace, and cultural biases, the SAT denies African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women equal opportunities for higher education. Research shows that when admissions offices place heavy emphasis on SAT scores – particularly when they use rigid cut-off score minimums – the number of qualified students of color and low-income students admitted goes down. What’s more, using scores to award scholarships prevents students of color and women from getting their fair share of badly-needed tuition aid.

4. Test coaching doesn’t work.  Independent studies collected by FairTest show that good test prep programs can raise a student’s combined score on the SAT Critical Reading and Math tests by 100 points or more. Many of these courses are very expensive ($1,000 and up). They primarily teach test-taking strategies specific to the SAT, such as when to guess strategically. The fact that short-term coaching works undermines the test-makers’ claim that the SAT measures skills and knowledge learned over a long period of time. It also adds another income-related bias to the test. Students who come from families that can afford an expensive coaching class are already more likely to score higher on the test. If coaching does not work, why do both ETS and the College Board sell test preparation products?

5. But colleges still need test scores to make admissions decisions. The more than 800 colleges and universities that admit a substantial number of applicants without regard to test scores prove that you can have a rigorous admissions process without the SAT. Highly selective institutions can follow the example of colleges such as Bates, Bowdoin, Pitzer and Smith, and universities such as Wake Forest and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. All have found that the diversity and quality of their students improved after making the SAT (and ACT) optional. Fewer than 200 colleges in the country reject more than half of their applicants. Admissions officers at these schools have many other ways to deal with differences in high school curriculum and quality.