SAT still standard of merit, despite growing doubts

Colleges admit flaws, but see value of tests

May 05, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

In the days ahead, as the admissions process comes to a close, Maryland's colleges and universities will undoubtedly be pointing to rising SAT scores as proof of their schools' increasing quality.

Even as more educators -- across the country and in Maryland -- are questioning its value, the SAT remains the gold standard of academic merit.

"The SAT is the best measure we have right now of a student's ability to read and think and compute, because grades mean different things in different settings," says Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an ardent defender of the test. "It would be a serious mistake to abandon these tests."

Still, the chorus of criticism has been rising.

In the past few years, a number of private colleges and universities have stopped requiring SAT scores of their applicants -- 383 of the nation's schools, according to FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group that advocates less reliance on standardized tests.

In the past few months, the president of the California university system called for his schools to join that movement.

Recently, the president of the National Urban League was joined by numerous business leaders in urging schools to cease relying on SAT scores lest they fail to educate the future leaders of America.

"Many studies have shown that `gatekeeper' tests are inadequate and unreliable predictors of future prosperity and productivity in life," says Urban League President Hugh Price. "The predictive power of the SAT fades after the first year of college."

Western Maryland College is the only school in Maryland that has joined this movement. This week, its faculty voted to make the SAT optional for applicants who are in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.

Charles Middleton, vice chancellor for academic affairs of the University System of Maryland, says the system -- which governs 11 state public campuses -- also will be looking into the issue.

"Some form of standardized testing will be used indefinitely into the future," Middleton says. "The key is which test is the best predictor of a student's ability to successfully do the work required at the university level."

Middleton notes that California system President Richard Atkinson, in calling for ending the use of the SAT I -- a measure of general aptitude for college-level work -- did not advocate abandoning standardized testing. He instead said there should be greater reliance on the SAT II, the achievement tests that measure competence in individual subjects.

Linda Clement, who headed admissions at the University of Maryland, College Park until she recently became dean of students, heads the board of trustees of the College Board, the organization that oversees the SAT. "I think people in recent years have misused the SAT," she says. "It was never designed to affix values to schools or to set real estate prices. It was designed many years ago as a way to identify talent and to do it in a standardized, normative kind of way."

Martha O'Connell, admissions dean at Western Maryland College, says the change there was to help attract applications from well-qualified students who might have difficulty with standardized tests.

"I do think it is a flawed exam," she says. "But I think at institutions like Western Maryland, we use it the way it is supposed to be used."

Most admissions officers say their problems are not with the test itself but with how the scores are used.

"Particularly in institutions that receive tens of thousands of applicants, it can become the primary sorter in the application process, even though the school's public position is that it is a secondary criterion," says Robert Massa, longtime enrollment dean at the Johns Hopkins University who is now dean of enrollment and student life at Dickinson College.

"In other words, if you have 10,000 applications for 500 spots, it is easy to use the SAT to determine who to focus your energy on," Massa said. "As a result, you have the potential to miss some incredible students whose SAT scores are below that institution's average."

Dickinson in Carlisle, Pa., is one of the schools that does not require a standardized test score from applicants. The decision was made in 1996, before Massa arrived on campus. He says that although 90 percent of applicants still submit scores, the decision has had a profound impact on the admissions process.

"Dickinson and a handful of other schools are putting their money where their mouth is," he says. "We say that the SAT is a secondary criterion, and by not requiring it, that makes it a secondary criterion.

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